The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in the coming months expects to issue a solicitation to begin testing explosive trace detection (ETD) systems to qualify them for use in meeting the air cargo screening mandate, agency officials say.

The agency will first test ETD technologies currently being used in the aviation environment, which is an acceleration of the testing process, and then examine redesigned and new systems, TSA tells TR2. Current ETD systems in use by TSA at airports are made by Britain’s Smiths Detection and Morpho Detection, a business of France’s SAFRAN Group.

“The agency aims to conduct ETD technical reviews expeditiously, while maintaining consistency and providing good security,” TSA says.

Industry officials have said that TSA is behind in its testing program for air cargo security technologies but an agency official says that is not the case and that the program is on its planned schedule.

TSA is currently testing X-Ray systems that can be used to screen air cargo based on an initial solicitation. A second solicitation for systems that were not ready the first time around led to new responses that will go through technical evaluations in the coming months, the agency says.

The list of specific systems approved by TSA for screening air cargo will not be made public as it is considered sensitive and secure information. New technologies will be added to the list as TSA will continue an open submission process through Broad Agency Announcements.

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.

DHS Says No Deadline Extension

The Department of Homeland Security and TSA say 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 U.S. 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, department and agency officials say.

“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 last month. “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.”

The forum was hastily arranged by 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 U.S. 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.

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 more TSA has certified more than 520 entities to be part of CCSP. These include at least 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 says. “Right now we haven’t quite met that mark and we need to make that mark.”