Canine screening of air cargo is faster, more efficient, and less expensive than using traditional technology designed for suitcase inspection. Airforwarders Association photo

Safe Skies: How Air Cargo Security Evolves to Protect Passengers and Boost the Economy

Keeping our nation’s economy vibrant generates jobs, promotes wealth creation, and makes our country prosperous. But we also know that there is a need to protect Americans from the threat of terrorism. In 2007, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation that would require the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to screen 100 percent of cargo transported on any passenger flights. With 1.5 million pounds of cargo carried on passenger air carriers daily, the mandate was fully implemented in 2010. Here is a quick look at our progress in keeping our skies safe almost 10 years later.

As the 9/11 Recommendations Act passed Congress, many assumed that implementing the full physical screening mandate was impossible. Despite opposing efforts from various stakeholder groups, the law was never repealed, leaving TSA to find a workable solution to meet the requirement. Solutions needed to be cost-effective, feasible given the current state of technology, creative, and reflective of supply chain realities.

After many decades in the fight against terrorism, we have come to the dreaded realization that the menace will not be alleviated anytime soon. Resisting sabotage is always a work in progress. The memories of the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103, caused by a bomb, combined with the attempted underwear and printer cartridge bombings continue to serve as harsh reminders that the work in protecting our skies is far from done.

A significant achievement since the 9/11 tragedies is the complete screening of all passengers and their baggage flying on flights throughout the world. Suitcases now receive sophisticated technology scans and physical examination. Passenger checkpoints are more manageable as government authorities use lessons learned from a dreaded past of long waits and missed flights. Passenger security screening is continuously evolving as airport facility redevelopment now includes innovative remodeling resulting in faster and more efficient throughput.

TSA decided that the most effective method in screening passenger cargo was to avoid federalization of the process by involving the private sector in the solution. The solution included the establishment and expansion of the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP), a push for more intelligence and information sharing, educating the public on aviation security, and embracing risk-based solutions.

Today in the United States, about 1,000 entities are validated and certified in TSA’s Certified Cargo Screening Program. These companies are allowed to screen cargo away from the airport, in their facilities, independent locations, or even agricultural fields following strict guidelines imposed and frequently audited by TSA. The barrier to entry is challenging, with the most stringent standards imposed on those enrolled in the program.

In June 2018, TSA recognized the national country security programs (NCSP) of the European Union and 12 other countries as commensurate with its own. Under the NCSP, TSA compares security requirements with volunteer countries, using site visits to validate their use. The program includes airport vulnerability assessments, carrier inspections, and interactions with local government officials. In countries where the TSA has not recognized its security program, TSA security requirements apply to all U.S.-bound cargo.

The cargo technology screening market is estimated to have been valued at $607 million last year. It is expected to reach $832 million by 2024. The market focuses on explosive trace detection, X-ray, and explosive detection systems. Many of these technologies continue to evolve, especially in the passenger and baggage screening environments, with several significant enhancements underway. Most of the revenue generated is from X-ray machinery, which is now able to penetrate objects of significant density from many differing perspectives.

Technology companies known to serve the cargo screening include L-3 Security & Detection Services, American Science and Engineering, Rapiscan, Morpho Detection, Astrophysics, Armstrong Monitoring, and Smiths Detection, to name a few.

Unlike passenger baggage, we all know that cargo comes in various shapes, sizes, and densities, requiring a more creative, risk-based, multilevel approach to physical screening. Commodities including human remains, dense objects, live animals, and some pallets may not be suitable for screening technologies better suited for suitcases. Yet, the mandate requires that such items be screened for explosives before transport on a passenger flight. Therefore, TSA has employed an effective, low-tech solution to a highly sophisticated challenge.

The recently passed FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 codifies the establishment of the TSA Third Party Privatized Canine Program (3PK9). TSA created the initiative under the CCSP to provide an efficient and effective method for screening air cargo to TSA’s standards. Private canine teams trained in explosives detection can be certified by a non-governmental entity, acting under the approval of TSA, as meeting TSA’s certification standards. Certified 3PK9 teams can be deployed to screen air cargo for aircraft operators, foreign air carriers, and other TSA-regulated parties operating under a TSA-approved or accredited security program.

Special canine explosive detection teams certified by other their peers serve as a shining example of government working collaboratively with industry to solve a complex challenge. Canine screening of air cargo is faster, more efficient, and less expensive than using traditional technology designed for suitcase inspection. The generated savings not only comes from the absence upkeep of expensive machinery, but less human resources needed to operate the technology.

Companies cleared to provide canine screening services include AMK9, Global K9 Protection Group, MSA Security, and Cargo Screening K9 Alliance. More are expected to jump into the market, which is expected to grow significantly in the years ahead.

While using canines to screen cargo is useful, the process may require the employment of technology to resolve uncertainty from time to time. Most companies enrolled in the CCSP using canine screening also have technology standing by to perform the task in such cases where confirmation of dog behavior is required. Employing a team consisting of man, dog, and machinery in concert comprises a strong team guarding against the introduction of explosives on passenger flights.

As useful as the many levels of cargo screening techniques may be, targeting shipment data is as important as the physical inspection of the freight itself. In June 2018, the Air Cargo Advanced Screening (ACAS) program began, requiring the submission of advanced air cargo information on shipments arriving in the United States from a foreign location. This initiative was previously a voluntary process in which airlines participate in globally, and the program is now mandatory for all airlines flying into the United States.

The ACAS requirement represents a baseline enhancement to air cargo security, with many nations planning similar initiatives on cargo destined to their countries. As part of the program, airlines submit a subset of required pre-arrival air cargo data to CBP at the earliest point practicable and before loading the cargo onto aircraft destined to or transiting the United States. The information obtained is compared against existing watchlists while applying sophisticated algorithms through data targeting.

Today, in addition to the terrorist threat, and as the world becomes focused on renewable energy, lithium batteries can pose a security risk. Improperly manufactured and mis-declared power cells can make their way onto passenger flights, often undetected through conventional technology. This new threat makes foreign government enforcement of manufacturing regulations and packaging important. Indeed, technology has become a two-edged sword as this now-popular power source becomes ubiquitous and increases throughout the supply chain using air cargo.

But despite advances in modern air cargo screening technology, the cargo tendering process at significant gateway airports continues to be a challenge. Significant cargo volumes fueled in part by the e-commerce megatrend have caused significant backlogs at the cargo terminals as handlers process and screen cargo for shipment. Airport congestion continues to be a focus at the Airforwarders Association. It will be on the agenda at the upcoming AirCargo 2020 conference in Nashville in January.

In the years ahead, the air cargo industry is not only looking forward to having more qualified canine screening teams at its disposal, but new technologies introduced that enhance the screening process at a reasonable price. The freight forwarding industry looks forward to working with governments in continuing the successful work completed thus far while keeping our skies safe for the flying public.

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Brandon Fried was appointed to serve as the Executive Director of the Airforwarders Association in November 2005. Brandon has more than 38 years of experience in the air freight industry. Brandon joined the Airforwarders Association in 2000 and was elected as Chairperson in 2001, serving for two consecutive terms. In August 2005 he sold his company interest and began consulting air cargo companies on business strategy and management practices until his appointment as Executive Director of the Airforwarders Association. Brandon is a recognized expert on the air cargo industry and regularly comments for major trade publications such as American Shipper, The Journal of Commerce and Air Cargo World. He also continues to educate and advocate for forwarders in national publications, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald and USA Today. He has also appeared on National Public Radio, CNN News and C-SPAN’s Washington Journal television shows. Brandon represents the Association on all security matters and serves on several Federal Advisory Committees. He advocates for the industry in the halls of Congress, the Department of Homeland Security and is the public face of the Airforwarders Association. A graduate of Syracuse University, Brandon holds a Masters in Business Administration and lives in Chevy Chase, MD, with his wife and two children.

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