Commercial aviation security has undergone a massive and unprecedented reorganisation in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC. Rigorous passenger screening and luggage inspections are now commonplace and the Air Marshal programme has been significantly expanded. Likewise, cockpit security has been improved by the introduction of reinforced cockpit doors and the deployment of defensive systems inside the cockpit itself. In the case of flights to and from New York City and Washington DC, passengers are forbidden from leaving their seats during the 30 minutes following take-off and before landing.
These steps have improved the overall safety of commercial aviation. However, cargo security remains a woefully inadequate aspect of civilian air transport.
Approximately 40% of all cargo travels on passenger jets but receives little scrutiny. According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), 12.5 million tonnes of cargo are transported each year, with about 2.8 million tonnes carried on passenger aircraft. The remainder is carried by specially designated cargo-only flights. A US government study conducted by the General Accounting Office (GAO) - the investigative arm of Congress - found that approximately half of a typical passenger jet's hold is filled with air cargo.1
Security measures designed to prevent dangerous material or explosive devices from entering the air cargo system rely on the 'known shipper' programme. This programme requires all shippers to be registered with the TSA and the airline or freight forwarding companies to only accept cargo from legitimate senders. In accepting only cargo from shippers with an established business relationship, airlines and cargo companies have been in compliance with the law. Under US law, this is all that is required.
According to federal documents, when a sender is identified as being 'unknown', the package is barred from travelling on passenger aircraft and must be flown only on all-cargo flights, or be delivered in another manner.
Critics of the current security regime argue that while billions of dollars have been spent on screening passengers and their luggage, cargo security has received relatively little attention. As airlines and governments mandate stricter security measures, terrorists are naturally driven to the industry's under-protected weak points. Furthermore, critics point out that despite the increased perception of aviation security created by long lines at airports, the air cargo loophole has left commercial airlines increasingly vulnerable to terrorist bombs.
The 'known shipper' programme has several obvious deficiencies. Primarily, air cargo is not under supervision around the clock. As the GAO pointed out in a report on the subject, the prevalence of cargo theft is striking evidence of this fact, as is the statistic that the majority of air cargo robberies are 'inside jobs'. Most thefts, writes the GAO, occur in air cargo terminals and sometimes aboard unattended aircraft. For a terrorist wanting to bring down a civilian airliner, circumventing this system is certainly possible.
Among aviation security planners, one of the main concerns regarding cargo security is that the 'known shipper' programme could be subverted. For instance, someone with the intention to place a bomb on a commercial airliner could easily take a job with an air freight company and misrepresent their identity during the screening process. The ready availability of fraudulent documents facilitates this process.
Having infiltrated the cargo company, a terrorist would then simply "introduce [a bomb] into a 'known shipper' shipment, recognising that the shipment would not be screened".2 According to a confidential report prepared by the US Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Aviation Security Research and Development, which was widely cited in the media, this is the scenario most feared.
The cargo security system has other vulnerabilities. Cargo could be substituted in transit to the aircraft, or before loading the plane. The sheer volume of air cargo further mitigates security screening. Compounded with the proliferation in express delivery, security measures must be weighed against the economic impact they carry.
Another complicating factor in air cargo security is the fact that freight moves through numerous hands and often through several businesses. Manufacturers, shippers, consigners and forwarders all send cargo through several stages of processing from departure to arrival. As a result, the number of individuals involved and the level of supervision varies with each cargo consignment.
Perhaps one of the most telling loopholes in air cargo security is the fact that employees of cargo firms are not subjected to standardised screening by the federal government. While this is among the most likely aspects to be rectified, it demonstrates a severe weakness in the air transit system. The failure to secure this most basic element in an integrated aviation structure renders the entire system exposed to terrorists intent on bringing down a civilian airliner.
Steps can be taken to tighten air cargo security and reduce the current vulnerabilities in the existing system. By focusing on two areas, personnel and the supply chain, the threat can be reduced. These measures include the following:
Implement a layered approach to computerised cargo screening incorporating redundant detection systems. As cargo moves through the air freight system, it should be screened by successive monitors who will ultimately determine whether such cargo should be placed on commercial passenger aircraft.
Standardise the employee screening process for air freight and cargo shipping firms. The resources of the federal government should be brought to bear to ensure that those individuals working in the air cargo industry are not potential security risks.
Begin a cargo profiling and risk assessment process for all cargo carried by passenger aircraft. The current 'known shipper' screening programme should be augmented through the implementation of a computerised cargo profiling system. To whom is the package being sent? Are the shipper and receiver both located at legitimate, verifiable addresses? How was the shipping paid for and by whom? Does this shipment fit the pattern of other deliveries made by the same shipper and is it being sent to the same receiver?
Invest greater funds in the research and development of technologies designed to minimise the damage from an in-flight explosion (blast-resistant shipping containers) and increase airline survivability. Despite the added costs of employing blast-resistant shipping containers - and the added fuel costs due to the heavier load - such tools can increase the chances of a targeted aircraft returning safely to ground.
Screen all cargo for explosive and hazardous materials. All cargo carried aboard civilian passenger aircraft should be subjected to the same security screening for explosives and hazardous materials as accompanied luggage. Failure to do so renders the passenger screening process pointless.
Expand existing canine inspection and screening initiatives. Very few airports in the United States regularly use the superior detection skills of dogs to find explosive devices and/or contraband. While this method is very exhaustive on the animals, its success rate rivals high-tech machines.
Improve cargo facility security and secure unattended aircraft and cargo. The gaps in the cargo chain can be closed by eliminating the opportunities for unauthorised people to introduce dangerous cargo. Such efforts would also help cut the theft rate in commercial shipping.
Subject personnel and cargo to random security inspections. In order to achieve a known level of confidence in the air cargo system, regular and random screening is important for both personnel and cargo. This testing will demonstrate the reliability of an improved cargo system or indicate faults before a catastrophe. Such screening would also serve as a redundant detection method to combat insider tampering with the overall security strategy.
Despite all the progress made to improve aviation security, a major loophole still exists in air cargo security. This loophole threatens to render all the other protective measures useless, as explosive devices could still make it aboard a civilian airliner. While 100% security will always be elusive, the removal of the largest threat to airline security is easily achievable.
Christopher Boucek is a security writer and media analyst with extensive experience in Middle Eastern affairs
1 United States General Accounting Office, 'Aviation Security: Vulnerabilities and Potential Improvements for the Air Cargo System' GAO-03-344 (Washington, DC, December 2002).
2 Report of the Secretary of Transportation to the United States Congress 'Report to Congress on Air Cargo Security' (Washington, DC, May 1998).