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Thoughts on Air Cargo Security Screening

By Kelly Hoggan

100 percent of all cargo shipped via air is screened before it's loaded onto airliners.

Almost all U.S. and foreign airlines transport cargo on their planes in addition to passengers and their carryon and checked luggage. U.S. and international air security rules and regulations dictate that any cargo carried aboard a commercial airliner must also be properly security screened before it’s placed aboard its designated flight. In the U.S., air cargo is kept safe by undergoing security screening using a variety of methods, while cargo coming from foreign destinations is always advance screened before it’s approved for transport.


Terrorist Threats to Air Cargo


Cargo being carried aboard a commercial airliner must always be both safe as well as secure from various threats. Still, terrorists are nothing if not persistent in looking for ways to penetrate the security layers U.S. and international aviation security agencies have created to safeguard the aviation sector. In October 2010, for example, U.S. and global counter-terrorism agencies discovered explosive devices secreted in cargo placed aboard planes destined for travel to the United States. Those devices were planted by operatives working for the Yemen-based branch of Al-Qaeda.


Air Cargo Advance Screening Program


Fortunately, U.S. aviation security is even more persistent than the nation’s terrorist adversaries in working to keep air cargo safe and secure from threats, and it uses a variety of programs to do so. One lesson learned from the October 2010 bombing attempt is to gain as much advance information as possible when it comes to the transport of air cargo coming to the U.S. from foreign destinations. In this regard, the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection implemented the Air Cargo Advance Screening (ACAS) program on June 12, 2018.

Prior to the program being formally required the submission of advance information about cargo being sent aboard U.S.-bound airliners was voluntary, though many global airlines were already full participants. Under ACAS, air carriers sending cargo to the United States must submit to CBP certain pre-arrival data about the cargo they’re transporting, and they must also do it as early as possible in the process and BEFORE loading that cargo aboard an airliner.


Risk-Based Cargo Vetting


A huge amount of cargo is sent to, or transits through, the U.S. every day. ACAS makes it possible to identify cargo that may present a potential threat and to then target it for vetting before it begins its trip. Working together, CBP and TSA examine all information about the cargo in question using analytical tools which factor risk into the equation. If the cargo is deemed too risky or if there are open questions about it that can’t be fully resolved through enhanced security screening, then it doesn’t fly. Risk-based cargo vetting through ACAS adds another layer of security to keep U.S.-bound air cargo safe and free from terrorist threats.


Keeping Air Cargo Secure


Advance screening works extremely well with electronic and physical screening of air cargo. In the U.S., 100 percent of cargo moving on passenger planes must be screened prior to it being loaded. TSA also requires U.S. airlines to screen each piece of cargo at a TSA-certified cargo screening facility, or CCSF, and that cargo screener personnel meet a set of stringent training requirements prior to assuming their duties. Many aviation security consultants also offer a wide range of air cargo security screening training programs as well as technical expertise and know-how in setting up an effective cargo screening program. Ensuring effective screener training is coupled with equally effective electronic and physical assessment of air cargo is one of the most effective techniques for preventing future threats to the air cargo transportation system.

Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 400-plus commercial airports.

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