How secure is air cargo?

  • A small but significant percentage of the world's cargo is carried on aircraft.
  • It is therefore important that the security procedures applied to cargo are as stringent as those applied to passenger baggage.
  • The known consignor scheme has gone some way to tightening security and new security procedures are being introduced constantly, such as the use of specially trained RASCO dogs.

Since the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, the aviation world has tightened its security measures to prevent terrorists from placing bombs on aircraft. In addition to the threat posed by passenger luggage, aviation and security agencies are taking seriously the threat posed by cargo carried on aircraft.

While only a small percentage of the world's cargo is carried by air - industry experts say between two and five per cent worldwide - around 70 per cent of this is carried on passenger aircraft. Even a small amount of explosive planted in such a cargo pallet could kill passengers and crew, damage the economy and cause long-term mayhem. It is therefore vital that security procedures applied to cargo are as stringent as those applied to passenger baggage.

Existing technologies

Checking the contents of cargo containers is not as easy as checking passenger baggage. For example, X-rays are not always viable as containers tend to be too dense or too cluttered. X-rays are also unsuitable for screening cargo that has a high water content, such as shipments of perfumes or medications.

New technologies are being developed all the time: Nomadix makes a trace detector that is considered effective but even it cannot detect the full range of vapours found in explosives. Companies such as Rapiscan, L3, China-based Nuctech and Smiths-Heiman are leading the race for new and upgraded technologies to combat the threat, but in practice, cargo security screening has changed little in the past 20 years.

European harmonisation

One criticism that has been levelled at aviation security is the lack of harmonisation in security procedures between European countries, the UK and the US. Authorised methods for screening cargo in Europe include manual searches, X-ray screening, conventional sniffer dogs, simulation chambers and biosensory methods such as RASCargO dogs (see box), but there is no set standard.

Some countries, as well as some airlines, are much tougher than others and they are leading the way in developing new techniques and screening methods. A case in point is Harald Zielinski, head of security and risk prevention manager for cargo at Lufthansa. He is also chairman of cargo security for the Association of European Airlines, which represents 90 per cent of all European airlines.

Zielinski says Lufthansa treats cargo security as an independent topic, placing passenger safety as its top priority. He adds: "We do not distinguish between unknown passengers and unknown shipments." At Lufthansa, frequent clients and regulated agents are all checked regularly with X-ray and trace detection screenings. Warehouse employees are vetted and truck drivers cannot enter sensitive areas without an appropriate access card.

In Zielinski's opinion, harmonisation is the key to streamlined and effective cargo security techniques. He is well aware that measures taken by Lufthansa and other European airlines are different from those used in the US, but no negotiations have ever been conducted to bring procedures in line. He believes there is a real risk from unharmonised regulations among EU member states and that governments should use more industry experts to enable the authorities to communicate better with end users.

While EU resolutions are progressing, government bureaucracy can get in the way. Vital results, which are often classified under a country's national security programme, may be kept secret from industry experts who are actively involved in aviation security.

Known consignor scheme

One programme that has been working to address these issues is the known consignor scheme, which is employed across Europe.

Under the scheme, a company or manufacturer that can pass strict security tests, including background checks for all employees and stringent manufacturing measures, can register as a known consignor. The scheme began in the UK in 1993, when comprehensive legislation was produced to ensure that no cargo could fly unless it had undergone an effective and relevant security procedure, applied at source by regulated agents and maintained throughout the process of delivery to the airline. Since 2003, all validators have been recruited and accredited by the Department for Transport (DfT) and in 2006 the process was reviewed again following the discovery that some validators could be influenced by their knowledge of who had previously validated the site. Under the new procedures, no validator can inspect the same site more than once in three years.

Norman Shanks, an aviation security expert and former head of security for the British Airports Authority (BAA), says: "Before last year, a known consignor would simply go to the Department for Transport website and choose a validator. Now, the department appoints a validator at random from an authorised pool." This prevents possible collusion between regulated agents and known consignors. Manufacturers who become known consignors are also required to put procedures in place that make it impossible to identify which flight specific cargo will be placed on, further tightening security.

The shipper must also take stringent security measures in securing cargo, including manufacturing and warehouse procedures, such as perimeter fencing and employee vetting. However, cargo sent by known consignors is rarely checked again at the airport and this has drawn criticism from some, including Michael Ouliel, supply chain security expert and chief executive officer of Cargo Security International. He says: "If a known consignor is allowed to place his cargo on the plane with no further checks near the aircraft, the security procedure ends too early." In response, Ouliel is developing a cargo version of the system used to check and match passenger baggage just before loading.

Oren Sapir, business development manager of global security firm ICTS Europe, also thinks current methods need to be improved. He says: "In some countries, all you need to do to become a known consignor is register on the internet. Airlines do not know how many known and unknown consignor shipments will arrive. They do not know how many X-ray machines are necessary and much is guesswork. Cargo agents need to do more." One response from his organisation has been the development of RASCargO dogs (see box).

More screening

Additional measures are constantly being introduced to improve security measures. Under new regulations that came into effect in January, aviation cargo that cannot be screened using conventional methods and is not from a known consignor will now be delayed for five days (previously only two) while necessary checks are carried out, making it effectively uneconomical to send such cargo by air.

"Air France is currently screening unknown and known consignments using RASCargO dogs", says Dr Marian Langford, chief executive officer of Detection for Security and a scientific adviser to the RASCargO project. She adds: "It makes more sense as far as storage goes. Regulated agents currently have to store unknown cargo separately from known cargo, so it is more effective to screen everything."

Until detection methods can be improved, as much as possible is being done to minimise the potential threats.

Scent of danger

At the forefront of cargo screening technology are specially trained RASCargO dogs. Developed by ICTS and Diagnose, the first commercial use of RASCO (remote air sampling for canine olfaction) took place more than two years ago at Manchester International Airport. The dogs, which are mainly German and Belgian shepherds, became operational in the UK and France in 2004. They are currently working at London's Heathrow Airport and Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport, as well as Manchester International Airport. The programme is the biggest stand-alone cargo screening project in Europe.

RASCO is a two-stage process. A sample of air from the container under examination is drawn over a special filter and the filter is then presented to the animal. If the dog sniffs a form of explosive in the sample tube, it will crouch. According to Oren Sapir, ICTS business development manager and Diagnose managing director, dogs can be trained to detect up to 15 different odours. The ICTS dog-training facility in France has reportedly trained animals to find five basic types of explosive, which covers nearly 20 military and commercially available explosives.

Dr Marian Langford, scientific adviser to the RASCargO project, says: "The dogs' performance arises from their extraordinary ability to pick up the faintest odours. The vapour pressures of some explosive materials today are so low that no machine can detect them, while RASCargO dogs can detect a range of volatiles."

RASCO dogs are currently used on tens of thousands of lorries carrying cargo to Charles de Gaulle Airport. They usually work in pairs to reduce any potential risks and to compensate for any weaknesses.

Sapir says: "Our concept of RASCO operations is to have a number of mobile teams collecting samples in situ and taking these to one central analysis unit at the airport where the dogs are. RASCargO dogs search for a combination of smells that contain the explosive combination of vapours. They can do things that other technologies cannot do, cheaper and more effectively."

ICTS is also trying to introduce another layer of security by building a machine that could imitate the dogs' capabilities.

Raine Marcus is a writer and media and communications consultant based in London. She specialises in the security sector.

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