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The real threat to air travel: cargo

On May 20, Tom Ridge was breezing through testimony before the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, successfully parrying questions on funding for first responders, porous border security, and the role his department played in tracking down fugitive Texas Democrats. That is, until Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey began to query the secretary. What, Markey wanted to know, did Ridge plan to do about the safety of commercial air cargo? “Twenty-two percent of all air cargo in the United States is placed upon passenger planes,” Markey intoned. “Right now, there is no system in place which guarantees that that cargo is screened.” Ridge tried to answer, only to be cut off seven times by Markey in the course of one minute. Finally able to get a word in edgewise, Ridge assured the committee, “We recognize this vulnerability, and that is a very high priority.”

If only that were true. While the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)—now a part of the Department of Homeland Security—has worked assiduously to screen every piece of checked passenger baggage, the dirtiest secret in the skies is that it has turned a blind eye to the cargo sitting alongside it. Congress may have passed legislation in November 2001 requiring that every piece of mail, baggage, and cargo undergo screening, but 20 months later less than 2 percent of the 550,000 daily tons of air cargo on passenger jets gets proper inspection.

And that air cargo is at serious risk of being tampered with: According to industry experts, cargo en route to passenger planes can be handled up to six different times, often by truckers and freight-handlers who are not subject to any sort of federal background check. Making matters worse, of the 10,000 domestic freight-forwarding facilities—massive warehouses that consolidate roughly 80 percent of all air cargo—the TSA inspects just 1,500 annually. According to a classified document obtained by The Washington Post last June, the TSA, citing intelligence, believes there is a 35 to 65 percent likelihood that terrorists are planning to put a bomb in cargo on a passenger plane.

But those odds haven’t spurred the Bush administration to get serious about screening air cargo. And Congress—largely because of the obstructionism of one member—hasn’t compelled it to do so.

The Bush administration’s response to the cargo threat has been twofold. First, it has mandated that only “known shippers”—which the Federal Aviation Administration defines as a firm that has made at least 24 shipments with the same freight-forwarder over the past two years without one of them blowing up— can put cargo on passenger planes. But that isn’t much of an improvement because, once a firm is anointed a known shipper, it is given a veritable carte blanche: Its packages are generally subject to only minimal visual inspection. That’s a big problem, since it presumably wouldn’t be that difficult for a terrorist to get a job with a known shipper—or with a freight-forwarding facility or a trucking company—and sneak a bomb into a package. (Indeed, this scenario became much less hypothetical last week when the Justice Department announced the arrest of Ohio truck driver and “Al Qaeda scout” Iyman Faris, who, it turns out, made regular deliveries to an air cargo company at the Columbus airport.) The known-shipper program, says Leon Laylagian, a security official and pilot at the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, is “perilously inadequate.”

Second, in March 2002, the TSA issued a number of short-term recommendations aimed at diminishing the air-cargo threat. According to a report in The Washington Post, the recommendations included scattering 10 to 15 mobile cargo- screening units and 200 permanent electronic trace-detection cargo machines at various airports nationwide, thus increasing uncertainty for terrorists. The TSA also called for the launch of a widely publicized 15-day “blitz audit” of freight-forwarders with sketchy track records and a 60-day audit of all cargo carriers. But, some 16 months after the recommendations were issued, the TSA has followed through on very few of them. According to a TSA spokesman, the agency has not deployed any mobile cargo-screening units. What’s more, the TSA appears not to have set up any trace-detection machines or conducted a single public blitz audit—facts the spokesman refused to confirm or deny.

Which is where Congress would normally step in. In May, the Senate passed the Air Cargo Security Improvement Act, authored by Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, which increases cargo-facility inspections, trains cargo-handlers, and authorizes the TSA to revoke the license of any noncompliant cargo company. But the matching bill in the House has languished in the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The reason? The committee is chaired by Alaska Republican Don Young, who, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has taken more than $245,000 from air-transport political action committees since 1996.

Since March 6, when the bill was first referred to a Transportation subcommittee, Young has simply refused to mark it up. “If the chairman doesn’t want the bill to move, it won’t move,” explains one Transportation Committee staffer. In late May, Young came up with a bill of his own that stripped out the stricter provisions in the original bill and replaced them with a “pilot program to assess the capabilities of the private sector” in securing air cargo at just ten of the 429 airports nationwide. A Republican congressional aide calls Young’s bill “a joke.”

The stated rationale behind Young’s new legislation is that the TSA, acting in concert with industry, should spearhead security efforts. “It’s best to give the professionals in the field the ability to create and implement the actual programs instead of being directed by Congress to do so,” says Young’s spokesman, Steve Hansen. But, as the TSA has already amply demonstrated, the agency will not act absent some sort of impetus. The real motivation behind Young’s bill, then, probably has more to do with satisfying the air-cargo industry, which fears any legislation that could stymie the flow of commerce. Yet the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the Senate legislation—which was nearly identical to the bill Young sat on—concluded that the costs to industry would be marginal. Says one Senate staffer, “We talked to airlines and the cargo carriers ... and made changes to keep the industry viable and still close the loophole. ... Our bill won’t put anyone out of business.”

In fact, a more stringent cargo-security regime could actually help the airline industry’s long-term solvency. For starters, it could reduce the cargo theft endemic along the chain of commerce: The FBI estimates that air-freight robbery accounts for a hefty chunk of the $10 billion in stolen cargo annually. As Andrew Traill, head of air-cargo policy for the United Kingdom’s Freight Transport Association, notes, “If you improve security against terrorism, you’re improving against theft and identifying inefficiencies, and ultimately that’s better for business.”

Furthermore, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, all U.S. mail weighing more than 16 ounces was yanked from passenger jets, depriving the airlines of more than $400 million in revenue annually. With more muscular anti-terrorism measures in place, the government could safely put some of that priority mail back on planes, thereby resurrecting a critical revenue stream for airlines. Says a spokesman at the Air Transport Association, “The number-one thing we’d like to get back on is that mail. Revenue-wise, that’s our biggest priority.”

Most of all, the air-cargo industry simply can’t survive a cargo-based terrorist attack. Just as the events of September 11 struck a severe blow to airlines by grounding planes for three days, a cargo attack would immediately bring air-shippers’ and freight-forwarders’ businesses to a grinding halt— costing the industry more than $40 million for every day it didn’t ship goods. As one senior vice president at a Midwestern cargo firm told the Chicago Tribune last month, “Air-freight-forwarding is one bomb away from extinction.”

Many members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have rightly adopted this calculus. On June 12, Markey, not satisfied by a letter Ridge wrote him outlining the TSA’s “long-term” air-cargo strategy, introduced yet another cargo-security bill, and it has already attracted bipartisan support. But, before it can come up for a vote on the House floor, it must first pass—you guessed it—Young’s Transportation Committee. When I asked Hansen what the committee planned to do with it, he told me they would almost certainly pass Young’s bill this week, thereby obviating the need for Markey’s. “Probably what will happen is that we’ll take a look at [Markey’s bill] and determine that the issue has already been dealt with and not act on it,” Hansen said. “We get multiple bills that deal with the same issues, and you don’t pass them all.” Not even the ones that would make us safer.

This article originally ran in the July 7 & 14, 2003 issue of the magazine.