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Originally Published: 10/17/2007


By The Issue Wonk


I hate flying.  I just took a short trip and, standing in line in my stocking feet while removing clothing and placing everything in those little gray containers, I couldn’t help but look at the machines and all the money being spent and I had to wonder just how safe all of this was making us.


While passengers are screened heavily and passenger baggage is run through screening machines, “most cargo that flies on passenger flights receives far less scrutiny than the people and baggage traveling on the same airplane.”1  Air cargo security is decidedly better than it was several years ago.  In 2003 the Congressional Research Service2 found:


The air cargo system is vulnerable to several security threats including:  potential plots to place explosives aboard aircraft; illegal shipments of hazardous materials; criminal activities such as smuggling and theft; and potential hijackings and sabotage by persons with access to aircraft.


Then, a couple of months later, the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued security directives to require random inspections of air cargo and to require foreign “all-cargo carriers” to “comply with the same cargo security procedures that domestic air carriers must follow.”3


So, things are better, but how good are they?  Not real good.  This year TSA will spend


close to $5 billion securing passengers and their checked and carry-on baggage – but only $55 million on the air cargo that can fly on the same airplane.  What’s worse, only 300 cargo security agents are focused on air cargo full-time, less than 1% of the TSA workforce.  This forces the agency to allow the 1.5 million known shippers, 3,800 freight forwarders (with 10,000 branches), and 300 air carriers that form the air cargo supply chain to largely police themselves.1


The problems have not been lost on Congress.  A Senate bill passed last March would require TSA to “screen” all domestic air cargo carried on passenger aircraft within 3 years.  A similar House bill mandated that TSA “inspect” such shipments.1,4  There is a difference.


To inspect air cargo is to examine it physically by various means, item by item, to ensure that it does not contain a bomb.  Properly done, inspection gives a high level of confidence that no bomb is present.  In contrast, to screen cargo is to administratively review cargo data and then inspect only a fraction of the cargo itself.1


It looks like the House prevailed on this one.  According to SecurityInfoWatch.com, the bill finally signed by President Bush


calls for the 100% scanning of maritime cargo before it’s loaded onto vessels heading for the United States to be required within the next 5 years.  However, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may extend the deadline by 2-year increments, if necessary.  It also calls for the scanning of all cargo on passenger planes within the next 3 years.5  [Emphasis added.]


So, at least some time in the near future we’re going to be pretty safe, right?  Wrong.


But even if 100% inspection is the right goal, there are several problems with Congress’ emerging approach.  It cannot be achieved within 3 years.  Its emphasis is on the wrong cargo.  And TSA lacks the existing resources to do it.


A small but significant volume of air cargo arrives at the airport in shipping containers or on pallets, already “built-up” in shipping vernacular.  No technology currently exists to effectively inspect cargo shrink-wrapped on 4-foot square pallets, large cargo containers (also known as unit loading devices or ULDs), or “cookie sheets” (metal sheets on which cargo is stacked to the size of a ULD) for the small quantities of explosives that can bring down an airliner.  A labor-intensive effort to break down, inspect, and reassemble shipments is impractical as a standard practice.1


Now, another problems has cropped up.  Many airplanes are sent to foreign repair shops for service, where they could be sabotaged.  “Some repair facilities are operated by large manufacturers such as Pratt & Whitney and Boeing.  Others are small businesses in countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.”  The TSA has no security rules for these facilities although Congress ordered them to do so 4 years ago.6


How much is all this costing us?  That’s very hard to say.  In 1989, before Congress mandated screening for passenger baggage, the airlines were paying $500 million a year for security.7  What it’s up to now is anyone’s guess.  In 2006 The Heritage Foundation listed some of the costs.


Spending on checked-baggage screening equipment alone totaled $2.5 billion as of September 2004, despite the low throughput and high error rate for costly explosive detection system (EDS) machines. . . . Manual loading of EDS machines also led to the hiring of unexpectedly large numbers of baggage screeners.8


Earlier this year, the TSA purchased 8 of the “millimeter wave machines” – the body scanners – at a cost of between $100,000 and $120,000.9  They’ll be purchasing more.


So, why are we spending all this money if it isn’t making us safer?  The obvious answer is that it makes us feel safe, whether we are or not.  And that encourages air travel, which means the airline industry doesn’t go broke.  So, we can probably view all the tax money as well as ticket prices as a subsidy for airlines.


However, airlines aren’t the only corporations getting rich on our tax money.  In 2005, Rani Cleetez, a research analyst with Frost & Sullivan, said, “TSA’s intense focus on airport security has created an unprecedented demand for equipment to safeguard airports from potential threats.  With government expenditure for this purpose exceeding an estimated $12 billion at the nation’s 429 commercial airports since 9/11, this can only spell good news for airport security equipment companies.”10  [Emphasis added.]


So, the next time you’re standing in line at the airport – in your stocking feet, taking your clothes off, placing your watch in a dish or your mascara in a plastic bag – take a look at the names on those big machines – General Electric, InVision, L-C Communications, etc. – and know that all the inconvenience is for the benefit of their CEOs and shareholders, because little is being done for us.




1  Crowley, P.J. & Butterworth, Bruce R.  Keeping Bombs Off Planes:  Securing Air Cargo, Aviation’s Soft Underbelly.  Center for American Progress, May 4, 2007.


2  Elias, Bartholomew.  Air Cargo Security.  Congressional Research Service, September 11, 2003.


3  Office of the Press Secretary.  Transportation Security Administration Implements Random Inspection of Air Cargo.  Department of Homeland Security, November 17, 2003.


4  Frank, Thomas.  Bill Would Order All Air Cargo Screened.  USA Today, January 8, 2007.


5    Logistics Management.  Bush Signs Maritime, Air Cargo Inspection Bill.  SecurityInfoWatch.com, August 21, 2007.


6  Frank, Thomas.  Jet Fixes Abroad Seen as a Threat.  USA Today, October 16, 2007.


7  Weiner, Eric.  Who is Going to Pay for Airport Security?  The New York Times, September 3, 1989.


8    Poole, Robert W., Jr. & Carafano, James Jay.  Time to Rethink Airport Security.  The Heritage Foundation, July 26, 2006.


9  TSA Begins Testing New Airport Scanners.  CBS News, October 11, 2007.


10  PRNewswire.  Airport Security Equipment Presents Strong Potential Opportunities for Investors.  SecurityInfoWatch.com, December 13, 2005.



© The Issue Wonk, 2007



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