Air security risk for travellers

This year marks the tenth anniversary of al-Qaeda's 9/11 attacks on America, but how has cargo aviation security changed in the intervening decade?

It's a decade this year since the al-Qaeda attacks on America prompted airport security to change beyond recognition. All passengers and their carry-on luggage are now subject to stringent X-ray security checks, which has caused much controversy and inconvenience. The same stringency does not, however, seem to apply to cargo.

In 2007, American Congress passed legislation stating that, after August 2010, all'cargo carried aboard passenger planes in the US would be refused entry if it was not scanned prior to arrival. Although cargo on narrow-bodied planes is now fully scanned, US passengers are still flying with unchecked cargo in the hold, meaning travellers are at risk of bombs entering holds undetected.

Only 50 per cent of the 250,000t of US commercial cargo is screened, with 1 per cent of commercial cargo on passenger planes not being screened at all. Some 60 per cent of all cargo flying into the US is flown on passenger planes, with 15 per cent of passengers departing US airports on planes containing cargo that has not been completely screened.

Universal security legislation

Passengers have every right to feel uneasy. Fragmented international cargo-security laws mean that some countries are investing far less into their air-cargo security than others. The risks of failing to adopt a common international security protocol were proved earlier this year, when cargo bombs were discovered in Turkish and Indian airports, as well as last year, when two bombs were discovered on passenger planes arriving in the UK from Yemen.

Despite current legislation, the scanning process in the West is far from sufficient. Rather than airports bearing the brunt of the responsibility, they contract independent validators such as FedEx to sign-off cargo before it arrives at the airport. The US Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP) includes a combination of risk-assessment, hand-scanning, and sniffer dogs, with some large cargo-scanning terminals in use.

The UK-equivalent of the CCSP is the 'known consigner' policy: partnerships with known freight companies which are based predominantly on trust. Until 2003, air cargo agents and airlines validated the security of cargo themselves, but on 1 August 2003 this responsibility was removed and given to independent validators.

Intensive validation costs £400 and monitors the recruitment, training and reference checking of staff as well as examining ease of access to the site. Currently, 800 known consigners exist in the UK. UPS, one of the two courier companies that failed to detect the Yemen ink-cartridge bombs last year, is a registered consigner.

Evidently, the current system for cargo security does not fully reflect legislation guidelines, and exposes commercial passengers to the danger of aviation terrorism. So why is the aviation industry reluctant to initiate 100 per cent cargo scanning?

Watching the purse strings

Expense is one of the overriding factors preventing known consigners or CCSPs investing in new equipment. The bespoke machines are built to a detailed customer specification, meaning that larger cargo scanning technology costs UK customers at least £1m a unit.

'Cargo scanning machines really are big investments for smaller freight companies to make because they are not one-price, stock items,' says Tracey Cole, a representative for explosive detection technology company Smith's Detection. 'The known consigner list is a bit of a double-edged sword; some of the smaller consigners should be slimmed down if they don't have the equipment to meet legislation safely, especially as they can sub down to larger companies.'

Further resistance to cargo scanning technology by an industry that is essentially selling speed of delivery can inevitably be attributed to the drain on time. Experts predict that scanning every piece of cargo would slow check-in dramatically at the expense of the US imports market.

Ralph Basham, border protection commissioner, believes the impact of 100 per cent scanning on the flow of commerce would be enormous, slashing profits and incurring higher transportation costs for time-sensitive US importers and exporters.

The Transport Security Association predicted a similarly ominous situation. In the year following the 9/11 attacks, they estimated that if full cargo-screening was implemented, only 4 per cent of the daily volume of freight at airports could be processed due to the time required to break down shipments, inspect them, and then reassemble them for transport.

Streamlining new technology

Contrary to industry opinion, streamlining new detection technology as early as possible into the security supply-chain would, says technologists, reduce checking time. It currently takes 45 minutes to scan a container by hand and with sniffer dogs. Certain large-scale scanning units would remove the human and canine element, increasing the number of containers scanned per hour from one to 25, with initial terminal installation taking only 20 minutes.

Technology providers are all too aware of the need to streamline the explosive-detection process fully into the supply-chain model. 'Cargo screening requires a seamless integration into the cargo-flow to avoid any disruption,' says Colin McSeveny, head of group media relations for Smith's Detection. 'The new development trends in cargo scanning are in automated detection and screening at a higher speed, with a better logistical integration into cargo transport.'

Autonomous systems can reduce scanning to mere seconds, hardly a drain on time considering the attendant peace of mind. The compatibility of new technology should also allay any infrastructure fears; newer technologies run on a Windows 7 platform using an Ethernet connection. These solutions allow airports to strengthen the layering of cargo security systems, bringing them up to par with the intensive vetting of passengers.

Advances in technology also mean that suitable scanning equipment is now readily available. Previously, the technology didn't exist to intensively screen every piece of cargo but, since 9/11, cargo screening technology has advanced significantly.

Advanced Technology (AT) X-ray is used frequently for checked-bag scanning, but is also suitable for cargo scanning as it allows high detection through steel at more than 30mm deep, providing detection of nuclear materials hidden in tightly packed cargo. Completely autonomous scanners can be used in both a static and mobile function. Dual-view X-ray technology is also available, eradicating image shadow to allow penetration deep into tightly packed cargo.

Large-scale equipment big enough to scan lorry-sized shipments have been developed by the likes of Smith's Detection, Audax and Rapidscan, and are in use across America, but they have yet to become an international standard. Smaller and cheaper variants of the larger lorry scanners are also available for pallets and small cargo.

Advanced security technologies

Recent scares and advances in technology have provoked US airports to reassess existing technologies. They are finally beginning to address the need to invest in new equipment in order to reach a 100 per cent scanning security model.

In July this year, Lufthansa invested in X-ray scanning systems with AT X-ray vision able to penetrate through 60mm of steel.

'New X-ray and trace inspection units will help us to continue our proactive approach to air-cargo security. This investment in the Americas will allow us to expand our ability to screen more effectively and accurately for explosive devices at international airports.' says James LoBello, Lufthansa Cargo head of security, of their investment in new cargo scanning equipment.

Screening technology manufacturers have also noticed the increasing interest in new equipment. McSeveny says: 'There has been a constant growth in demand for cargo screening solutions, especially after the failed air-cargo plot from Yemen.'

The UK Department of Transport remains guarded about standardising international cargo-scanning law. 'Our processes are constantly under review, we couldn't possibly comment on how they compare to that of other countries,' says representative Ben Clifton.

If terrorists are to be dissuaded from exploiting security loopholes, international cargo-security law will need standardising to include the use of high-tech cargo scanning technology. And if airlines consider the security of passengers travelling with commercial cargo a priority, then investment in new equipment would mean tighter security in parts of the world where air-cargo security is not a main concern.

'Security in the UK is pretty good; the US is not bad, but aviation is a global business and we need effective regimes around the globe,' says Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International. 'Cargo travels on both cargo-only and combi-aircraft, which have passengers and cargo, and unfortunately cargo is not subject to the same screening requirements as passengers' baggage.' *

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