Despite a congressional mandate that 100 percent of cargo loaded on passenger planes be screened for explosives this year, it won’t be until 2013 before this will likely happen, according to a senior Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official.

By the end of 2010 TSA estimates that 62 percent of inbound international air cargo will be screened for explosives, John Sammon, assistant administrator for Transportation Sector Network Management at TSA, tells the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security. Next year about 80 percent of foreign air cargo will be screened, rising to 92 percent in 2012 and reaching 100 percent in 2013, he says.

DHS had already said it would not meet the international target this year.

Reaching agreements with foreign governments on the U.S. air cargo screening mandate has been challenging. Stephen Lord, director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the Government Accountability Office agrees with TSA, telling the panel that it would take about three years to get agreements and capacity in place overseas to do the screening.

Sammon says the three year timeline is similar to what the European Community believes it will take to get the various standards, enforcement and verification mechanisms in place to do the screening. The screening will be physical, not risk-based, he says.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the author of the air cargo screening legislation, says that the Department of Homeland Security isn’t pressing the issue hard enough with foreign governments.

Harald Zielinski, head of security for German air carrier Lufthansa‘s Cargo division, says his company is “unclear” about how TSA will proceed with the foreign air cargo program. Zielinski also says he’s not certain how TSA is working with foreign governments to “assess and recognize their security programs and factor this into compliance for foreign inbound shipments.”

The Air Transport Association, which represents the nation’s airlines, supports TSA’s plans to “recognize the screening regimes of additional host countries beyond the countries with previously approved programs,” says John Meenan, ATA’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. This should eliminate duplicative screening overseas by forwarders and air carriers, he says.

ATA would like TSA to get an international screening program in place within at least 18 months by first focusing on major trading partners with the U.S.

Markey’s legislation also requires 100 percent screening of cargo on passenger planes departing from U.S. airports. That deadline is Aug. 1 and Sammon says that DHS’ stance that the date remains firm.

To meet the domestic component of the mandate, TSA established a voluntary screening program aimed at distributing responsibility for screening throughout the supply chain, from shippers down to forwarders, with airlines having ultimate responsibility for ensuring that screening either has been, or is, done. As of last week there were 803 Certified Cargo Screening Facilities, and while that number is below what TSA believes is ultimately necessary, Sammon says there is sufficient capacity now to meet the Aug. 1 deadline.

Lufthansa’s Zielinski tells the subcommittee it is meeting the screening mandate in the .S. as of July 1.

“Albeit a massive challenge, considerable resources, money and time were allocated to adopt and carry out this strategy effectively and to ensure a robust business continuity plan,” he says.

No Plan B

Despite a recommendation by the GAO that TSA have an alternative plan come Aug.1 if there is a lot of unscreened cargo that airlines won’t be able to screen prior to a planned flight, Sammon says his agency has no intention of creating a Plan B. He says that shippers and freight forwarders have known about the screening program for long enough yet early on there was apathy on the part of many of them. Once they realized the deadline was real and was sticking, more shippers and forwarders got involved.

One panelist, Fernando Soler, the owner of SOS Global Express, a small freight forwarding company, and a founding member of the Air Cargo Security Alliance, says their should be two key components to a multi-layered screening program. One is voluntary participation throughout the air cargo industry like the CCSP, and the other is federal screening centers located at the country’s airports. Soler says that the federal screening centers would help create a level playing field for the small and medium-size forwarders who either can’t afford to purchase their own screening equipment or who don’t even own warehouse space.

However, Sammon suggests that if TSA were to step in and create an alternative to CCSP, many firms would back out of the voluntary screening program.

Demand for Better Technology, Training

The industry representatives generally agreed that one area where TSA needs to do better is the development and deployment new and better technologies to screen air cargo, especially palletized cargo, as well as improved training in the use of technology.

“Cargo consists of bulk packaging, odd sizes, various commodities and sensitivities that require enhanced technology,” says Zielinski. “This would include the requirement to use larger aperture X-Ray beyond the current restrictions, expanded research on the use of trace detection applications, and the further recognition of international canine teams.”

ATA’s Meenan says that main focus on training with screening equipment has been on the basics, such as turning it on and off, cleaning and maintenance.

“There should be a tighter connection between the TSA CCSF (Certified Cargo Screening Facility) training process which does provide IED (improvised explosive device) specific training and the X-Ray equipment manufacturers who simply don’t address this subject in their equipment training,” Meenan says.

TSA Certifies Bevy of X-Ray Systems

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has added a number of non-computed tomography (CT) X-Ray systems to its qualified technologies list for screening air cargo, further boosting the choices that potential customers have as well as increasing the competition between vendors. The agency has qualified additional systems from Astrophysics, L-3 Communications [LLL], OSI Systems [OSIS] Rapiscan division, and Smiths Detection.

TSA has also qualified X-Ray systems from two other companies, Control Screening, which makes the AutoClear line of X-Ray systems, and Morpho Detection, which is part of the Safran Group. Neither company has sold any of its X-Ray systems for air cargo screening but both say there are quoting prices and expect orders shortly. Morpho Detection’s HRX line of X-Ray systems was launched in Sept. 2009. TSA has qualified six HRX systems and three of Control’s AutoClear systems.

All told, 60 non-CT X-Ray systems from seven different manufacturers have been qualified by TSA for screening air cargo.

Of the 803 CCSP entities, 461 are indirect air carriers or forwarders, 272 are shippers, and 70 are Independent Cargo Screening Facilities.