Air cargo group urges global cooperation

Security regulators around the world must work together to ensure that the movement of air freight is safe and secure, especially after last week's discovery of package bombs on cargo flights headed to Chicago from Yemen, an air cargo group says.

"We are much more secure than in 2001 [when the September 11 terrorist attacks took place], but there is room for improvement," Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said in a written statement. The group's members comprise about 230 passenger and cargo airlines.

As IATA is responsible for carrying about 35 percent of the total value of goods traded internationally, "transporting these goods safely, securely and efficiently is critical," Bisignani said.

Yet "belts, shoes and shampoos are not the problem," Bisignani said. "We must shift the screening focus from looking for bad objects to finding terrorists. To do this effectively, we need intelligence and technology at the checkpoint. The enormous amount of data that we collect on passengers can help governments to identify risks."

In an apparent reference to calls by U.S. lawmakers for mandatory screening of all cargo flown by air freight haulers, Bisignani said that "airport screening cannot be our first line of defense." It can complement intelligence and technology that can assess risks and identify threats, he said, adding that the development of screening technology needs to be done faster.

"Currently there is no government-certified technology to screen standard-size pallets and large items," Bisignani said. "There is some promising technology, but it is taking far too long to move from the laboratory to the airport."

He noted that companies have been cooperating with governments "on targeted actions for Yemen-origin cargo," but cautioned that any unilateral or hasty changes to security procedures might have unintended consequences for the industry. "If there are any longer-term adjustments required, we must do so with all the facts in hand with measures targeted to meet specific risks," he said.

Even though governments, working with the International Civil Aviation Organization, agreed to global standards for data elements and a process to collect that information, not all governments follow the standards, he said, asserting that global standards for collecting data on packages are essential to secure cargo.

The Transportation Security Administration has said "that one of the big challenges they have is attaining visibility of other country's security programs to tell if they're commensurate with the U.S. [standards]," Brandon Fried, executive director for Airforwarders Association, which represents the $17 billion air cargo industry, said in an interview Monday.

"Now, countries need to sit down and show TSA what [standards] they have.... Everyone's got to share the goal," Fried said. "This is not a specific U.S.- or European-centric issue -- this is everyone's issue now."

For each country with a nonstandard data requirement, it takes about $1 million to build new systems, IATA said, and "adding just one nonstandard element to data collection is a $50,000 system cost."

New data requirements in India, China, South Korea, and Mexico "consume money and resources, but none improve security or border control," Bisignani said. Therefore, the challenge now "is to work with governments to implement harmonized standards," he said.

Since the discovery of the Yemen package-bomb plot, some lawmakers, including Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., announced plans to introduce legislation when Congress reconvenes later this month that would require security screening of all freight carried by commercial cargo planes.

A complete screening system may not actually be the best solution to attain security for air cargo, Fried cautioned. "If you screen every piece, you might not find everything," he said.

"It's better to start assessing where the cargo came from, what it looks like, abnormalities in the shipping pattern," Fried said.

"We cannot dismiss the value of good intelligence," he added.

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