Homeland Security tightens rules for air cargo

By Derek Kravitz and Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 12:24 AM

The U.S. tightened security on cargo shipments flown from abroad Monday, banning "high-risk" cargo from flying on passenger planes after last month's discovery of a plot that originated in Yemen to send bombs in shipped packages.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also extended last week's ban on all air cargo from Yemen to include Somalia as well. And she limited to less than 16 ounces the size of toner or ink cartridges that can travel in checked or carry-on baggage, a response to the discovery of a bomb disguised as a toner cartridge and shipped as cargo at a London airport.

"The threats of terrorism we face are serious and evolving," Napolitano said in a statement, "And these security measures reflect our commitment to using current intelligence to stay ahead of adversaries."

The new rules also affect items deemed high-risk that are shipped on cargo planes. Napolitano said such cargo will go through additional screening before it is loaded. A spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) declined to define "high-risk" cargo, other than to say it isn't limited to that shipped from countries that have been linked to terrorist activity.

'A delicate balance'

Millions of tons of crates and packages fly into the United States from abroad every day, filling the holds of passenger airliners and cargo planes. Those millions of tons break down into millions of pieces bound for tens of thousands of addresses.

Finding a bomb among them - before the Chilean grapes rot, the Colombian flowers wilt and without delaying a vital replacement widget needed to get an assembly line moving - is a hectic security challenge in a global economy that moves at hyper speed.

"We have a delicate balance to strike," TSA Administrator ohn S. Pistole said after the bomb plot was discovered. "The flow of global commerce is key to economic recovery. Security cannot bring business to a standstill."

Responsibility for keeping cargo bomb-free falls principally to the airlines, though the TSA sets the standards and monitors operations. All packages are screened before they are put on board both domestic and inbound international passenger flights from high-interest countries: Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen.

Cargo bound for domestic cargo-only planes - which haul about 80 percent of all cargo - must pass through a TSA-certified screening program at one of 1,200 facilities. For inbound international cargo planes, detailed manifests must be filed on takeoff for planes flying within the Americas, and four hours in advance of arrival for those coming from overseas.

Napolitano said Monday her agency is working with the airline industry on a plan for handing over cargo manifests more quickly so authorities could scrutinize a plane's contents more closely.

The bomb discovered in London on Oct. 30 had been mailed in Yemen and was destined for an address in Chicago. It was found based on a tip from a Saudi informant. A second mail bomb was intercepted at a Federal Express facility in Dubai.

Great Britain responded by banning all air cargo from Yemen and Somalia, another terrorist haven.

Expensive solutions

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."

But aviation industry analysts question whether it's possible to screen all inbound international cargo.

"They have to increase the amount of screening," said Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association, which lobbies on behalf of the air cargo industry. "But this call for 100 percent screening, I wonder if it can even get done."

He said a more likely scenario involves souped-up data mining of potential high-risk packages.

"If a package is addressed to a synagogue, and the label is funny-looking, and it's coming from Yemen, well that's a red flag. That's just common sense," Fried said.

Big business at Dulles

Dulles International Airport handled roughly 141,000 tons of domestic and foreign cargo last year, ranking it 19th among airports nationwide, according to the Air Transport Association, a Washington-based industry group.

Although the amount of air cargo coming in and out at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport has gone down steadily since 2005 and freight work at Reagan National Airport is virtually nonexistent, Dulles International Airport has become increasingly reliant on such business.

Between 2005 and 2007, domestic and international air cargo enplaned and deplaned at Dulles jumped by nearly 35 percent, with international cargo experiencing the biggest increase. The change occurred almost overnight, primarily due to the awarding of several new international routes, including a direct flight from Dulles to Bejing in 2007, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

International air freight operations at Dulles have slipped since then, following the economy, but have rebounded in recent months. In September, Dulles recorded a 7 percent year-over-year growth in international freight and express business, according to airport statistics. International cargo now accounts for more than 61 percent of the airport's total freight work.

BWI received a little more than 100,000 tons of freight in 2009, according to airport officials, while Reagan National handled less than 10,000 tons of domestic cargo.

kravitzd@washpost.com halseya@washpost.com

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