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Transforming Air Cargo Security in the Post-9-11 World

Author: Stephen E. Flynn
Summer 2002
Cargo Network Services


An unfortunate thing happened on the way to the boom in the air freight business of the 90’s —as air carriers, freight forwarders, logistics providers, motor carriers, and airports scrambled to boost the capacity and efficiency of moving cargo via the skies, no one paid much attention to security. It wasn’t as though we lacked reasons to be worried about the industry’s continued exposure to the criminal and terrorist threat. But, facing up to those concerns was a bit like inviting a teetotaler to a New Year’s eve bash—nobody wanted a bit of sobriety getting in the way of a good party. Tragically, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon became the bad morning after.

As each day passes without a new attack, it is tempting to try and convince ourselves that the tragic events of September 11 were a fluke —a case where a few determined terrorists caught us with our guard temporarily down. That would be a mistake. Truthfully, our guard was never really up. Over the past half century, America built a national security establishment designed to fight an away game. That approach worked well until al Qeada decided to ignore our playbook and bring their war to us. Now we are scrambling to bolster our defenses at home, and we are practically starting from scratch.

The air freight community must accommodate itself to the fact that security, like safety, must be an organic part of the transportation industry. The catastrophic terrorist genie has been let out of the bottle. We must come to grips with the sobering reality that what we witnessed on September 11 is how warfare will be fought in the 21st century. It is one of the sad ironies associated with the end of the Cold War that America’s overwhelming military might has made terrorism the only real alternative for challenging U.S. power. Since it would be a fool’s game to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. armed forces, those who are unhappy with the world’s sole superpower are having to become more inventive. The United States is the Goliath and its current and future adversaries must find a David-like strategy to confront it.

The air shipping business makes a very attractive target for would-be Davids because it satisfies the age-old criteria of opportunity and motive. “Opportunity” flows from the sheer size of the industry combined with the “time-is-money” imperative that underpins the demand for air freight. As it currently stands, a would-be terrorist can expect favorable odds that government authorities will be unable to detect and intercept contaminated cargo in advance. “Motive” is derived from the growing role air cargo plays in the supply chains of many companies. This rising dependency translates into the tempting possibility that an attack involving air cargo will not just hurt this $4 billion business, but create a serious ripple effect throughout the U.S. economy.

It is the potential to cause mass disruption that makes catastrophic terrorism a compelling tool of modern warfare. As the government’s response to the attacks on 9-11 illustrated, when faced with uncertainty surrounding a terrorist attack involving one or more transport modes, the decision to shut down the transportation industry—and the trade and travelers it carries—is almost inevitable. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta has essentially promised as much. And starting it back up again is dependent on the government’s capacity: (1) to rule out the possibility that there are no other attacks currently underway, and (2) to convince the public that similar kinds of attacks in the future will likely fail.

“Houston, we have a problem.”

There is a poignant scene in the Ron Howard film, Apollo 13, when the Mission Controller comes into a room with all the parts of an astronaut suit, throws them on the table and tells his people they will not be allowed out of that room until they can invent a way to repair the spaceship’s air filtration system. The task of transforming air cargo security is just as critical and requires the same level of creativity and energy.

Let’s begin by frankly acknowledging what everyone in the air cargo industry knows to be true—if a terrorist attack involving air freight takes place tomorrow, the post-mortem report on the state of air cargo security would appall the American public. The limited oversight exercised over air freight has always been geared towards regulatory compliance, not defeating terrorists. And the record of government agents in keeping the industry on the regulatory straight and narrow is by no means an unblemished one. As a result, absent change, one thing can be almost guaranteed in the aftermath of a catastrophic event. Congress will rush to pass new security laws and they will not pause to solicit industry input. Equally predictable, is that the legislative “cure” may then kill the very air freight industry it sets out to protect. In short, a failure of the industry to take on the status quo could prove fatal.

What is required is a substantially stepped-up Known Shipper program. The Known Shipper program as it now stands is a good starting point, but it certainly is not the endpoint. It is appropriate to assess risk on the basis of known players and unknown players. But it is not enough to simply verify that a shipper has a track record of making legitimate shipments. As the mutual fund prospectus warns, the past is no guarantee of future performance. If a Known Shipper is known to a would-be terrorist, that shipper will make all the more attractive of a target precisely because its shipments are less likely to be subjected to scrutiny. Modern terrorists are not dumb and they have access to substantial resources. They will look for a weak link either when the air freight is first packed, when the shipment is on the way to the air carrier terminal, or in the terminal itself.

Known Shipper Plus

It follows that three things are required to have a truly credible Known Shipper program. First, there needs to be standards and a system for auditing compliance over how goods are packed into an air cargo container. The loading dock should be a closed-system that is monitored by vetted supervisors and surveillance equipment. Verifying compliance with physical security and oversight requirements should be done by fee-based, bonded third-party auditors who are themselves regularly audited by government auditors.

Second, both the transit and the integrity of cargo containers as they move from the point of loading to the air terminal need to be monitored so that the carrier can safely assume that the container was not tampered with en route. This requires the use of sensor and tracking devices that together can provide in-transit visibility or transparency. These need not be high-cost. Passive light, temperature, or pressure sensors can be run on AAA batteries and communicate to an electronic seal via “Bluetooth” wireless technologies. Tracking devices are a bit trickier but can be tied into a truck-based GPS system. As long as the route of the truck can be accounted for along with the time and custody involved with a transfer, it should be possible to rule out the possibility that there was an opportunity to load illegal cargo into the shipment before its arrival.

Last, the provision of data about the containers contents at the point of departure is essential. Early and accurate data is key for two reasons. First, the primary tool available to government regulators for identifying high-risk cargo is by using advanced data-mining and pattern-matching technologies that can pick up tell-tale signs of a suspicious shipment. Second, when the intelligence community gets a tip that a shipment has been compromised, it is important to be able to pinpoint precisely where that shipment is before it arrives at a busy air terminal or—still worse—on the plane itself. Neither “just-in-time” data or post-data will work as a prevention tool. Such data will only help with the autopsy.

If government and the private sector can work together to effectively audit freight handling and movement in both the virtual and physical worlds, efforts to bolster public confidence in air cargo security will take a giant step forward. Should there be a terrorist attack involving air freight, having such a system would help Congress and the American people conclude that the attack resulted from a correctable breach in security rather than the absence of security. Even ensuring an educated public perception of the industry should be pursued as a worthy goal since it would temper the tendency to shut down all air cargo traffic until a more secure system is developed.

Of course, effective security costs money. Funding will have to be identified for new technologies, the implementation of new standards, and increased scrutiny of the industry. Clearly this cost cannot be and should not be borne primarily by the air carriers and forwarders. Instead Congress and the Bush Administration should be actively considering new mandatory fees, tax incentives, and “fast-lane” processing for known shippers, forwarders, and carriers. In addition, government agencies must be prepared to surrender bureaucratic turf. The air cargo industry has good cause to be perplexed and frustrated by the lack of a common government vision and the lack of private sector opportunity to voice ideas and concerns about how to make the movement of air freight both secure and efficient.

At the end of the day, everyone will have to move beyond their comfort zones. The near certain alternative is that another terrorist attack will result in the shut down of every air cargo operation—and that would be a victory for terrorism.

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