When Congress passed a law phasing in 100-percent screening of air cargo, industry veterans shook their heads and wondered how they were ever going to comply.
The time for head-shaking is over. Starting next month, 50 percent of shipments must be screened—piece by piece, no pallets or containers and no shrink wrap or banding—prior to loading on board an aircraft. (Shipments may be unitized after screening.) It's anyone's guess whether the industry will meet that deadline. A more important question is how big a bottleneck the mandate will create for shippers, carriers, and freight forwarders.
At the Northeast Cargo Symposium organized by the Coalition of New England Companies for Trade, Douglas Brittin, air-cargo manager for the federal Transportation Security Administration, emphasized that the airlines are responsible for ensuring cargo is adequately screened; TSA is responsible only for approving the methods they and their agents use. The industry also is "100 percent responsible" for the cost of cargo screening, he said.
The agency hopes to reduce the potential for bottlenecks and delays by establishing "certified cargo screening facilities." These facilities will be authorized to screen cargo before it reaches the airport, taking some of the pressure off the airlines. Once cargo has been screened at a certified facility, it can be palletized or wrapped, and airlines will not have to re-inspect it.
That program is just getting off the ground, though. TSA now is testing the concept with 14 freight forwarders, who will receive grants to help pay for personnel training and screening equipment. They'll need the help: According to Brittin, prices range from about $35,000 for an explosive trace detector to $400,000 for a large X-ray machine.
Speaking on the panel with Brittin was Richard Fisher, president of the Airforwarders Association. Fisher's group was instrumental in getting Congress to authorize the certified cargo screening program and is helping to build a coalition of organizations that will lobby Congress to underwrite the program's cost. "A funded certified cargo screening program will avoid airport bottlenecks," Fisher said, adding that he was not optimistic about getting much attention from Congress anytime soon. Funded or not, the cost of compliance for airlines, freight forwarders, and cargo handlers will rise, and shippers should expect to pay higher security surcharges before long, he warned.
They should also expect costly delays, says Steve Burke, senior vice president of East Coast Airport Services, which handles cargo for several airlines. His six-door facility adjacent to Boston's Logan International Airport handles about 4 million pounds of freight each month, the majority of it on skids or pallets. Once the law is in full effect, efficiency and timeliness will be a thing of the past, he predicted at the symposium. "Instead of unloading 10 skids off a truck, I'll be unloading and checking in 1,000 loose pieces. ... Trucks will be backed up around the block waiting to unload." Adding capacity is not an option for Burke's company, which lacks both the physical space and the money for more dock doors, dock workers, and screening equipment. With many other air-cargo facilities around the country facing similar constraints, he said, the effects could be "earth-shattering."