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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Screening and Securing Air Cargo: Background and Issues for Congress

Bart Elias
Specialist in Aviation Policy

The October 2010 discovery of two explosive devices being prepared for loading on U.S.-bound all-cargo aircraft overseas has heightened concerns over the potential use of air cargo shipments to bomb passenger and all-cargo aircraft. The incidents have renewed policy debate over air cargo security measures and have prompted some policymakers to call for comprehensive screening of all air cargo, including shipments that travel on all-cargo aircraft.

U.S. policies and strategies for protecting air cargo have focused on two main perceived threats: the bombing of a passenger airliner carrying cargo and the hijacking of a large all-cargo aircraft for use as a weapon to attack a ground target such as a major population center, critical infrastructure, or a critical national security asset.

With respect to protecting passenger airliners from explosives placed in cargo, policy debate has focused on whether risk-based targeting strategies and methods should be used to identify those shipments requiring additional scrutiny or whether all or most shipments should be subject to more intensive physical screening. While the air cargo industry and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have argued for the implementation of risk-based approaches, Congress mandated 100% screening of all cargo placed on passenger aircraft using approved methods by August 2010 (see P.L. 110-53).

While 100% of domestic air cargo now undergoes physical screening in compliance with this mandate, not all inbound international cargo shipments carried on passenger airplanes are scrutinized in this manner. TSA is working with international air cargo operators to increase the share of cargo placed on passenger flights that is screened, but 100% screening may not be achieved until August 2013. In the interim, TSA, along with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and international partners, is relying on risk-based targeting to increase screening of air cargo, particularly shipments deemed to be high risk.

Amid renewed congressional interest on air cargo security, a number of policy issues may arise regarding 
  • the desirability of risk-based strategies as alternatives to 100% cargo screening and inspection; 
  • the adequacy of off-airport screening under the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP) in conjunction with various supply chain and air cargo facility security measures;
  • the costs and benefits of requiring blast resistant cargo containers to protect aircraft from in-flight explosions in cargo holds;
  • the desirability of having air cargo screened by employees of private firms rather than TSA and CBP employees; and
  • cooperative efforts with international partners and stakeholders to improve the security of international air cargo operations.

Date of Report: December 2, 2010
Number of Pages: 12
Order Number: R41515
Price: $29.95

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