In the nine-plus years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, operators of all-cargo aircraft have been largely exempt from the security precautions imposed on passenger airlines carrying freight in their lower-hold compartments.
After the events of Oct. 29, when authorities in the United Arab Emirates and Britain found two packages with explosives on airplanes bound for the United States, the calculus may have changed. The packages were sent from Yemen by an al Qaeda terrorist group and addressed to Chicago-area destinations.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who authored a 2007 law that now requires 100 percent screening or inspection of air cargo loaded in the bellies of passenger planes at U.S. airports, said yesterday he plans to introduce legislation when the House reconvenes Nov. 15 following the mid-term elections to mandate the same screening requirements for cargo flying on all-cargo planes.
Markey, who has been pushing for cargo screening laws since 2003, tried to include a screening mandate for all-cargo planes shortly before the legislation requiring cargo screening on passenger aircraft was signed into law by President Bush in 2007. However, Markey's efforts were thwarted by a coalition that included the Bush administration, a Republican-controlled Congress, the air-cargo industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and other business interests, he said.
A source close to Markey said he will take the two-week hiatus to conduct "due diligence" on the total air-cargo universe, which includes companies like FedEx Corp., UPS Inc., and DHL whose air operations mostly handle packages and letters, smaller cargo airlines that carry more general freight, a phalanx of charter operators, third parties that book shippers' freight on all-cargo planes, and foreign airlines that operate freighters to and from the United States. No U.S. airline that predominantly flies passengers has cargo planes in its fleet.
"While we now have 100 percent screening of air cargo being transported on domestic passenger planes, and we are screening over a reported 80 percent of the incoming air cargo on international passenger planes, we are not yet screening all the freight on all-cargo carriers," Markey said in a statement. "Friday's incident shows that al Qaeda is well aware of this loophole in the system, and they fully intend to exploit it," he said. In a shot across the bow at the all-cargo sector, Markey added, "It is time for the shipping industry and the business community to accept the reality that more needs to be done to secure cargo planes so that they cannot be turned into a delivery system for bombs targeting our country."
Representatives from FedEx and UPS declined comment on Markey's announcement.
Tipping point for all-cargo sector
Markey has been tenacious in his attempts to require industry to screen or inspect air-cargo shipments. From 2003 to 2007, he offered multiple bills and amendments to mandate physical screening and inspection of air cargo. Time after time, his efforts were beaten back.
During that period, Markey clashed with industry, the administration, and members of Congress. Even the lone Democrat in the Bush Cabinet, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, at the time opposed the mandatory physical screening of cargo as too expensive and time-consuming. Industry condemned it as a so-called unfunded mandate, where Congress passes legislation but appropriates no funds to pay for it, leaving it to industry to foot the bill.
In January 2007, an amendment authored by Markey to inspect 100 percent of cargo on passenger planes phased in over three years was included in a House bill to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. After the passage of House and Senate versions early in 2007, President Bush signed the bill into law that August.
A security executive at a major transportation company said that in the wake of the Oct. 29 incidents, it will now only be a matter of time before the all-cargo airline industry is subject to the same screening and inspection mandates as its passenger brethren.
The idea of screening freight on all-cargo planes "has been in the background all the time. All that was needed was a catalyst to push it over the edge," said the executive, who asked not to be identified. The events of last Friday could be that catalyst, the executive said.
The executive said the large parcel carriers do a very good job of self-policing for security, noting that they handle cargo for a living and are accustomed to having security authorities in the United States and abroad "looking over their shoulders."
Though they are not subject to screening or inspection mandates, all-cargo carriers are required to comply with general government security requirements that apply to all air-cargo operations. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Administrator John S. Pistole said in a statement that cargo airlines carrying freight into the United States are held to "TSA security standards that include specific requirements covering how facilities and cargo is accessed, the vetting of personnel with access to cargo, employee training, and cargo screening procedures."
Any U.S. government policy response to Friday's events, the executive said, should take into account the distinction between all-cargo operators like FedEx and UPS that carry parcels and letters, and other carriers that ship general freight not in parcel configuration.
But with the issue now very much in the public eye, the executive doesn't believe such distinctions will matter to lawmakers.
"The general public doesn't know and doesn't care" about shipment types, the executive said. "All they see is a cargo plane blowing up in the sky or someone commandeering a plane and crashing it into a building."