The Transportation Security Administration says it will meet interim and final deadlines mandated by Congress for screening 100 percent of all air cargo before being loaded on passenger aircraft originating in the U.S.

However, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says that TSA still lacks detailed plans and activities for meeting the 50 percent screening goal by February 2009 and the 100 percent goal by August 2010.

“TSA has taken actions to strengthen the security of air cargo, but may face four major challenges as it proceeds with its plans to implement a system to screen 100 percent of cargo transported on passenger aircraft by August 2010,” Cathleen Berrick, director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues, tells the House Homeland Security Transportation Subcommittee during a hearing on air cargo security.

The four challenges outlined by Berrick are deploying effective screening technologies, what to do about existing screening exemptions for certain air cargo, having enough inspectors to oversee industry compliance with the cargo screening program, and securing cargo originating from foreign countries.

Berrick says that TSA hasn’t completed assessments of all the technologies it plans to use to screen air cargo and therefore can’t be sure the various systems will work effectively.

To carry out the air cargo screening mandates, TSA has established the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP) in which it will certify shippers, freight consolidators, logistics providers and manufacturers who voluntarily agree to participate and undertake such measures to secure their supply chains. In addition, the program includes having Indirect Air Carriers, which basically consolidate shipments from manufacturers onto pallets and other loading platforms prior to distribution to an airline, acquiring screening technology to inspect assorted packages for explosives prior to palletizing them.

To meet the initial February 2009 deadline, TSA is working with the 18 highest volume airports that handle about 65 percent of all cargo carried onboard passenger flights in the U.S., John Sammon, TSA’s assistant administrator for Transportation Sector Network Management, tells the panel. In addition to airports, the Phase I CCSP program will include between 60 to 80 freight forwarders and several hundred shippers, he says.

Ultimately, it will be the responsibility of air carriers to ensure that all cargo bound for their aircraft has been screened. If it hasn’t been screened, then it won’t fly, Sammon says.

The problem with relying on a program that would screen all cargo at the airports is that some don’t have the capacity to get it done, Sammon says. That would lead to significant disruptions in the flow of commerce, he adds.

Moreover, when cargo arrives at airports it is often stacked and bound in pallets or Unit Load Devices containing up to 11,000 pounds of cargo, which takes a while to breakdown and screen, Sammon says. James Tuttle, head of the Explosives Division within the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, says there is no technology today that can effectively screen an entire pallet of cargo.

However, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), chairwoman of the subcommittee, says that according to a joint letter from two companies that make cargo screening equipment, Smiths Detection and OSI Systems’ [OSIS] Rapiscan Division, there is currently technology that can effectively screen loaded pallets.

“Rapiscan, Smiths and other manufacturers have for over 10 years, provided these systems to cargo companies and airlines in the U.S. and worldwide,” the letter states. The technology to meet the federal mandates is “readily available,” it says.

Pointing to some of the challenges TSA will face in screening all cargo effectively, Tuttle also says that depending on the screening technology, some are better than others depending on the particular commodity being scanned.

The technologies TSA plans on employing for CCSP include Advanced Technology X-Ray machines like those being deployed at airport checkpoints and explosive detection systems like those used to screen checked bags and explosive trace detectors, Sammon says. TSA will also rely on canine teams and its own cadre of inspectors, which currently number 430 and is planned to go to 450 by year-end.

For the CCSP effort, TSA is initially purchasing the inspection equipment, some of which will be deployed to the IACs so that they can screen the goods before palletizing them prior to delivery to an airline.

The freight consolidators generally applaud TSA’s decision to include them in the air cargo security equation but the smaller and medium firms warn that they will not be able to purchase the inspection equipment.

“It is unrealistic to assume that the typical IAC can afford this equipment in his own company, just as we understand it may be difficult for some of the larger participating companies to do so,” Cindy Allen, chairman of the Task Force on Security for the National Customs Broker and Forwarders Association of America, tells the panel. She estimates the cost of security equipment at between $150,000 to $500,000 or more per facility. She adds that the IACs are also concerned that they may have to buy additional equipment if new threats are identified that can’t be detected using existing technology.