By Calvin Biesecker

There will be no extension to a looming deadline when all cargo must be screened for explosives before it is loaded onto passenger planes in the United States yet not nearly enough companies, particularly manufacturers and other producers, are participating in a federally managed screening program to ensure compliance with the air cargo screening mandate, government officials said on Monday.

“Let me just say quite clearly the deadline for this legislation is August 2010…There are no exceptions that we can take at the department,” David Heyman, assistant secretary for Policy at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said at a DHS Air Cargo Forum. “It has to be done August 2010. We have no extension authority. There is no technology sort of magic bullets that can solve this problem. So this is real and it’s going to happen and we have to get it done.”

There are 227 days until the deadline, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is “counting them,” Art Macias, chief of staff at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), said. It’s on her “radar screen.”

The forum was hastily arranged by the TSA, which is the DHS component charged with implementing the congressionally-mandated air cargo screening mandate. Attendees were largely heads, and representatives, of associations and other groups in the United States that utilize the air cargo supply chain.

To meet the Aug. 1, 2010 deadline, TSA about two years ago began developing the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP), which is aimed at extending the screening of air cargo at various nodes along the supply chain, from manufacturers to freight forwarders, distributors and even independent screeners. Air carriers are already covered by existing security regulations.

The program is voluntary and in the end it’s up to the air carriers to ensure that the cargo they load on their planes has been screened but the fact that unscreened cargo will not be loaded creates the incentive for the forwarders, distributors, producers and manufacturers to take on much of the screening themselves.

In February, TSA was able to meet in interim screening deadline for 50 percent of all air cargo. The agency did this by focusing on screening cargo for domestic flights on narrow-body planes. Much of this screening was done either by air carriers or indirect air carriers, which are freight forwarders serving the air cargo market.

But the big hurdle, which both TSA and industry groups acknowledge, is meeting the 100 percent mandate. Meeting the 50 percent goal was easier in part because cargo tendered to the airlines for narrow body flights arrives in pieces, which current technology can screen relatively easily.

However, getting to 100 percent screening means focusing on international departures, which are typically wide-body planes that carry cargo that arrives at the airline already palletized. If airlines have to break down the pallets, screen each box, then rebuild the pallet, this becomes untenable, hence the reason for developing CCSP and involving all nodes of the supply chain as potential screeners.

So far, TSA has certified 521 entities to be part of CCSP. These include 374 indirect air carriers, 39 independent screening facilities, and 108 shippers. But the program needs far more participants.

“This is a program which I think we had some anticipation that there would be thousands of participants,” Heyman said. “Right now, we haven’t quite met that mark and we need to make that mark.”

More than 90 percent of the certified shippers are doing physical inspections rather than using an approved technology to screen the products they send to a forwarder. That means relatively little monetary investment except for background checks, maybe some fencing of a secure area and the purchase of security cameras, Douglas Brittin, TSA’s Air Cargo Manager, said.

In many cases, shippers can relatively easily establish a secure system whereby they are screening their products as they package them so that their goods don’t have to be opened or screened again, Brittin said.

“I don’t think people realize this,” John Sammon, TSA’s assistant administrator for Transportation Sector Network Management, said.

In addition to physical inspections, bomb sniffing dogs and various types of equipment currently used in aviation security can be used to meet the screening mandate. The list of equipment includes metal detectors, computed tomography-based explosive detection systems, conventional and Advanced Technology X-Ray systems, and explosive trace detectors (ETDs).

The equipment categories are undergoing a new round of testing by TSA to ensure they meet requirements based on lessons learned through over 100 pilot programs the agency is conducting as part of CCSP and to allow additional technology vendors the opportunity to have their products approved for possible purchase by anyone screening cargo.

Air carriers, freight forwarders and various industries and even DHS point to limitations in the existing technology for not being able to effectively screen palletized cargo or all commodity types. The agency, and industry, would also like to see more detection systems that have on-screen alarm resolution protocols to speed throughput and make the systems even more user friendly. These are more reasons that TSA is, and will be, testing additional technologies for the air cargo environment.

The most popular types of systems right now for screening appear to be the ETDs, primarily because they are relatively low cost, around $40,000 per machine, and simple to use. France’s Morpho Detection and Britain’s Smiths Detection both supply ETDs that are being used to screen air cargo although a number of other companies are hoping to vie for this business.