In Wake Of Bomb Attempts, A Look At Cargo Screening

The latest terrorism attempt in Yemen revealed holes in the security screening of air cargo. Renee Montagne speaks with Brandon Fried of the Airforwarders Association about the challenges of screening air cargo.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Last week's attempted bomb attack, a plot that originated in Yemen, involved explosive devices sent through express mail companies UPS and FedEx. Millions of packages travel through that system every day on cargo and passenger planes. We're going to focus now on the passenger planes and how air cargo is screened and how the screening process affects business.

Brandon Fried is executive director of the Airforwarders Association, which represents that part of the shipping industry.

Good morning.

Mr. BRANDON FRIED (Executive director, Airforwarders Association): Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: One of the surprising things we learned after this foiled attack is how little screening packages like these couple of packages from Yemen can receive. Explain how much screening most of the air cargo that travels on passenger planes get.

Mr. FRIED: Well, here in the United States, thanks to the 911 Recommendations Act, we're at 100 percent screening now on all passenger flights departing any U.S. airport, regardless of its destination. And they're working very diligently over at the TSA to make sure freight coming into the United States is screened, as well. They have a pretty level already achieved.

MONTAGNE: By high level, that means we can all breathe easy?

Mr. FRIED: Well, they tell us upwards of 80 percent. The numbers fluctuate.

MONTAGNE: Given the challenge of doing all this screening, what exactly are they looking for - the screeners?

Mr. FRIED: Well, they're looking for all kinds of things, obviously, for reasons you probably appreciate - a lot of it sensitive security information, but mostly explosives. They can be looking at it for a number of different items, but items that would harm or potentially harm people on passenger flight.

MONTAGNE: If screeners are looking for explosives, is there a simple sort of technology that could be out there...

Mr. FRIED: Now...

MONTAGNE: ...that hasn't been discovered yet, or are we really pretty much stuck with complicated or very expensive technology?

Mr. FRIED: Well, you know, in the 911 legislation, one of the things that we were successful in writing in was that you could use several methods to screen cargo, because it's not the same as passenger baggage. You know, bags are pretty much the same. One might have a handle, one might have a roller, and they all fit in the same machine. But freight is different. It could be an automobile transmission. It could be books. It could be bananas. It could even be a lifesaving drug that's going to a patient somewhere across the country. So there are a lot of challenges that have to be addressed when you're screening. And so it could employ X-ray, explosive trace detection. It could be canine. So it could be - even be opening up the box individually to see what's inside. There are a lot of different methods that can be employed.

MONTAGNE: So you're allowed to employ all those different methods, but what are the limits?

Mr. FRIED: Well, the biggest limit is, obviously, is cost. You know, this is an unfunded mandate. Industry has had to step up to the plate, and it has. And it's invested hundreds of millions of dollars to buy this equipment, to retrain personnel, to make changes in facilities to accommodate the equipment and the process. The other issue, of course, is technology. TSA has been slow to certify technology, although they have made up for lost time in the past few months. But we still don't have a machine that will screen these pallets and containers, and that's a very, very big challenge at this point.

MONTAGNE: If you can't screen everything, what other kinds of things can be done by cargo companies to identify suspicious packages?

Mr. FRIED: Well, I think that 100 percent screening has its merits, but it's not the overall solution for complete cargo security. If you want 100 percent cargo security, what you really need to do is you have to incorporate the supply chain. You need to know who you're getting the shipments from, what's being shipped, you know, what countries they're coming from. You need to assess shipping patterns. You know, obviously, if someone just walks in off the street and gives an air freight folder or a shipment and that person has no relationship with the company, that should be a red flag.

MONTAGNE: Brandon Fried is the executive director of the Airforwarders Association.

Thanks very much.

Mr. FRIED: Thanks for having me.

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