Most Air Cargo on Passenger Jets Flies Unchecked
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
Coming up, if a terrorist false alarm diverts your airplane, who pays for it? First though, the alleged plot in Britain to blow up planes has air travelers worried about what's in carry-on bags, but what about the stuff that goes underneath the passenger section of the airplane? Approximately six billion pounds of cargo travels in the belly of passenger planes each year.
NPR's Alex Cohen has this report on the current state of air cargo security.
ALEX COHEN reporting:
Just moments before he boarded a U.S. Airways flight from Boston to Washington, D.C., Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts had this thought. He suggested handing all air travelers a card printed with the following message.
Representative ED MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Warning. The cargo under your feet may not have been screened, even though your bags were. Warning. It could be dangerous.
COHEN: The Transportation Security Administration won't release an exact number, but it's estimated that only 10-15 percent of the cargo loaded onto passenger planes gets inspected for explosives and other dangerous materials.
Rep. MARKEY: That is a huge loophole. It is one that al-Qaida could exploit. And it's time now to take what happened in London as a warning and to ensure that all cargo from now on is screened on passenger planes.
Mr. BRANDON FRIED (Airforwarders Association): One hundred percent inspection of cargo is something that might sound good in a soundbite, but it carries with it an enormous economic burden.
COHEN: That's Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association, the cargo industry trade group. He says cargo on passenger planes can include everything from Argentinean asparagus en route to a restaurant to human organs on their way to a transplant. In other words, items that need to get where they're going fast. Screening each piece of cargo, he says, would make timely deliveries nearly impossible.
Mr. FRIED: There're just too many industries out there that require the same day shipping and can't wait overnight.
COHEN: Cargo on passenger planes poses other security challenges. Large items often can't fit through the same machines used to screen luggage and carry-on bags. And considering cargo containers can hold just about anything, it's much trickier to determine which items are truly potential threats. Mike McCarron is a spokesperson at San Francisco International Airport.
Mr. MIKE MCCARRON (San Francisco International Airport): Here in San Francisco we do a lot of high tech electronics work with very sensitive metals and chemicals involved that could give false positives in the event of an explosive device. So how do you eliminate what is a proper cargo item from a potential threat item?
COHEN: In recent years the Transportation Security Administration has ramped up efforts to make sure cargo is safe by tripling the number of cargo inspectors nationwide and using more bomb sniffing dogs. And, says the TSA's Robert Jamison, new regulations will focus on the people handling air cargo.
Mr. ROBERT JAMISON (Transportation Security Administration): As of the December of this year the rule requires that anybody that has unescorted access to the cargo undergo a security threat assessment, which is a background check against the terrorist watch list to determine that they are not a security risk for air cargo.
COHEN: But these changes aren't enough, argues Irwin Redlener, director of the Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. He says the U.S. needs to do what countries like Israel and the Netherlands have already done: invest more money in resources to ensure all air cargo is safe.
Mr. IRWIN REDLENER (Center for Disaster Preparedness, Columbia University): I hate to even to articulate these words, but the fact is that we probably will have to see some major horrible event happen before we invest in the technologies and other means of dealing with inspecting cargo on airplanes.
COHEN: Redlener does see a glimmer of hope in San Francisco. A new $30 million pilot program at that city's airport will look at ways to use currently available technologies like CAT scans to increase inspection of cargo to at least 60 percent; a far cry from Congressman Markey's goal of 100 percent, but it still might be enough, says Terry O'Sullivan, a terrorism analyst at University of Southern California. He says just as there isn't an air marshal on every plane, there doesn't have to be an inspection of every cargo item.
Mr. TERRY O'SULLIVAN (Terrorism Analyst, University of Southern California): Even the most knowledgeable terrorists and possibly even terrorists that might be working in the air cargo system would potentially be deterred if they knew there were a certain percentage of probability that their precious package might be taken aside and inspected.
COHEN: O'Sullivan says as with any terrorist threat the only guaranteed way to keep passengers 100 percent safe is to keep them off planes. Alex Cohen, NPR News.
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