A Coordinated Approach to Air Cargo Security is Urgently Needed

Until the failed bomb plot of last week, the issue of air cargo security had not been an urgent one. Now it is not only desirable but also imperative that some significant effort in this direction is made, without over securitising another of our main sources and means of economic prosperity.

 By Valentina Soria for Rusi.org

On 29 October two explosive devices were found in printer cartridges onboard UPS and FedEx jets flying from Yemen to the US via the UK and Dubai. Made up of PETN, an explosive substance very hard to detect in standard security screenings, they were said to be viable devices, which could have brought down an airplane if properly and timely activated. [1]

The fact that terrorists had once again been able to detect, and exploit, a security loophole in the aviation system forced many governments around the world to swiftly adopt counter-measures to the new security challenge. France, the US and the UK were among the first to suspend all cargo flights from Yemen, and the Netherlands and Canada followed suit. The German government chose to ban all flight traffic coming from the African country, while at the same time urging the international community to draw up stricter security rules for air freight. [2]

The UK Home Secretary Theresa May announced the ban of toner cartridges larger than 500g from hand luggage on flights departing from the UK, and on cargo flights unless they originate from a regular shipper registered with the Department of Transport as a 'known consignor'. [3]

On the other side of the Atlantic, the US Department of Homeland Security implemented 'heightened cargo screening' and an 'unpredictable mix of security layers', while US lawmakers demanded more permanent measures aimed at extending the ones already in place for passenger aircrafts. [4]

Currently, air cargo screenings lack internationally harmonised and standardised procedures. This means that every country is free to determine the level of security they deem appropriate for regulating the cargo traffic taking place under their jurisdiction.

The US, which imports 1, 5 million tones of air freight a year from 97 countries, is one of the strictest regulators in the world. In accordance with the 2007 Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been responsible for pursuing a 100 per cent screening regime for cargo transported on passenger aircrafts. This would require all air cargo to be screened at the piece level prior to transport on a passenger aircraft. [5]

In order to allow a gradual and effective transition to the system, a Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP) was established in 2009, which was meant to promote a more proactive approach among the different actors in the entire supply chain. According to the scheme, any manufacturer, shipper distribution centre or freight forwarder in the US may apply to become a certified cargo screening facility. They would then be allowed to carry out screening on cargo directly at their location before sending them to an air carrier facility for shipment. [6]

The 100 per cent screening regime was supposed to come into force by last August. However, many practical obstacles forced the US Secretary for Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, to admit that the ambitious target will not be met for years to come. [7] First of all, similar to the CCSP, the approach affects only national operators and flights. Therefore, it cannot guarantee that an equally far-reaching level of security is pursued in foreign countries from which cargo bound for the US depart.

In fact, when passing the relative legislation, the US Congress intended to design a system which would include international flights as well, but failed to realise how jurisdictional governments can be when coming to security policies. Even bilateral agreements aimed at harmonising security standards (this has been one of the initiatives undertaken by the DHS to solve the problem) can provide only a partial and incomplete solution representing no more than a short-term fix.

The system itself does not seem to work properly even within the US. Last September the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) carried out an audit work aimed at assessing the state of the cargo screening regime. Although the results of the audit are classified, the OIG identified several vulnerabilities that will need to be properly addressed in the near future. [8]

At an EU level the main tool is the EU Framework Regulation 300/2008, introduced last April to replace Aviation Security Regulation 2320/2002 (adopted in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks). [9] Such regulation - that aims to harmonise security procedures in an effort to make it easier for EU operators to comply with the US regime - has introduced three elements: an independent validation system of known consignors; a mandatory EU cargo database of known, unknown or unaccredited consignors; and a distinction between direct and transit cargo. [10]

Like the system in place in the UK, the 'known consignor' regime implies that national operators should be validated by independent inspectors. However, substantial delays in implementing the regulation in several EU member states has meant the previous system, in which national agents are in charge of validating the shippers, will still be in operation until 2012. This defies the goal of harmonisation, as differing national standards will still be applied.

Thus, the lack of standardised security protocols and poor communication between the competent authorities makes the EU and US systems highly incompatible. Third countries complicate this further. Their specific screening regime inevitably means different levels of security, and the picture is one of a worryingly unregulated field. 

The US, for instance, has contemplated the idea of using an automated targeting system rating cargo on the basis of a risk assessment carried out on the country of origin. A very similar measure has recently been adopted in the UK. The UK Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, has announced the introduction of a risk 'league table' which would categorise countries of origin according to layers of risk. [11] Although valid in principle, this approach may still not guarantee an appropriate level of security and safeguard. For instance, it would not be able to significantly reduce the risk with reference to packages and items posted from a country deemed as low-risk, in particular from EU member states. [12]

The Director of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Giovanni Bisignani, has recognised the massive economic importance of air freight and the implications that a highly strict approach to security screening would have on the business. [13] He warned against the risk of hastily putting in place measures that have not been thought through properly. IATA is said to have put cargo security at the top of its agenda, and in this regard it will probably try to further develop its 'Secure Freight' programme, meant to promote an integrated global supply chain approach.  Although very valid in principle, the initiative is still in its infancy and it would take a while before a truly internationally recognised and agreed system will be established.

Last October the International Civil Aviation Organisation adopted a Comprehensive Strategy on civil aviation security, which was signed by 167 countries. This came after a year long period of consultations on a regional basis, led principally by the US and aimed at reaching global safety and security standards that would harmonise procedures in the field. [14]

The significant achievement in the field of civil aviation security is a valuable example to follow; by working to offset the current incompatibilities, the US and the EU should take the lead and set sound standards that would then be possible to extend globally. Even though such standards and rules are often not binding, their establishment is nonetheless essential to create a regulated framework, which would enhance security and safety. The key could be to make the price of not compliance, translated in a denied access to US and EU markets, too high to bear for many developing countries.


[1] See Theresa May: Cargo Plane Bomb a "Viable Device"', The Daily Telegraph, 30 October 2010 and Bomb Plot Sparks Cargo Crackdown', AlJazeera, 1 November 2010

[2] James Boxell, Robert Wright, Pilita Clark 'UK in Emergency Air Cargo Restrictions', Financial Times, 1 November 2010

[3] May Announces Tighter Air Freight Security Rules', BBC News, 1 November 2010

[4] 'US Lawmakers Pledge to Close Air Cargo Security "Loophole"', Post&Parcel, 1 November 2010

[5] '100% Air Cargo Screening: Path Forward', US Department of Homeland Security, 19 June 2010

[6] Jena Baker McNeill 'Air Cargo Security: How to Keep Americans Secure Without Harming the Economy', The Heritage Foundation, 21 June 2010

[7] Ibid.

[8] 'Evaluation of Screening of Air CargoTransported on Passenger Aircraft', Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General, 21 September 2010

[9] Regulation (EC) No 300/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council, Official Journal of the European Union, 11 March 2008

[10] Martin Roebuck 'Air Cargo Security: More Questions than Answers', IFW, 10 March 2010

[11] ('Airfreight risk "league table" announced', The Daily Telegraph, 4 November 2010).

[12] 'Incompatible Security Regulations Will Slow Air Cargo', British International Freight Association, 24 May 2010

[13] 'IATA Warns Against 'Knee-Jerk Response to Air Plot', BBC News, 2 November 2010

[14] Ellie Duncan 'Airline Industry Rallies on Air Freight Security', SupplyChainDigital, 2 November 2010


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