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Homeland Security tightens rules for air cargo
Technology that scans large amounts of cargo and detects explosives is costly.
An $8 million "Pulsed Fast Neutron Analysis" scanner was installed at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport in 2005 as part of a federal pilot program. The machine could detect substances such as nerve gas or cocaine in a package by analyzing its base atomic makeup. The program lasted only a few months before Transportation Security Administration funding ran out.
"From a technology perspective, you can provide an ample level of screening to scan everything," said Peter Kant, executive vice president of Rapiscan Systems, a global company based in Arlington County that developed the scanning technology. "But it's big and it's expensive.
One such scanner is in use in the United States, at the Mexican border in El Paso, where it's used to inspect fully loaded truck containers. Airports in Hong Kong and Singapore also use the machines.
Two members of Congress, Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), last week urged that the TSA begin screening all cargo from countries of interest. Whether the new Congress will be of a mood to shoulder the cost of that and other new security measures is unclear.
A move by the TSA to increase security on international cargo planes could cause delays in the arrival of freight, said Brian Clancy, a managing director at Logistics Capital and Strategy, an Arlington-based advisory firm specializing in cargo transportation.
And improving security for incoming packages would depend on the will of other countries to enforce programs.
"TSA can't tell other countries which cargo regulations to have, and it can't go out and enforce them," Clancy said.
Determining how to adapt
The Obama administration is working with major corporations in the $100 billion global air freight industry to shore up security. Napolitano called four of the country's biggest shipping companies last week to discuss improvements.
"The writing is very clearly on the wall," said Leo J. Schefer, executive director of the nonprofit Washington Airports Task Force. "They're going to have to adapt and deal with the costs."
A spokesman for U.S. shipping giant United Parcel Service said they anticipated "more substantive discussions between the DHS and the industry."
"UPS shares the administration's concerns and commitment to operating as safely and securely as possible, and it was good to hear Secretary Napolitano underscore her commitment to working in collaboration with the air freight industry," said UPS spokesman Mark Dickens in an e-mail. "UPS is looking forward to having additional dialogue with the DHS about how we can best utilize our collective insight and expertise to address this important security issue."