The TSA’s air cargo screening regime has gotten much attention lately, including significant time at two recent Congressional hearings.  As part of the 9/11 Act, TSA is required to screen 50% of air cargo carried on passenger aircraft by February 2009 and 100% of air cargo by August 2010, at a level “commensurate” to that of checked baggage.

Since the Administration has not asked for nor has the Congress appropriated sufficient funds, TSA has decided to implement a Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP).  Under this regime, third-party vendors (such as freight forwarders, indirect air carriers, shippers, etc.) volunteer to participate to screen cargo earlier in the supply chain, before it reaches the airport.  Other than supplying canine units, the TSA will be in an oversight and inspection role only.

While this approach leaves a lot of unanswered questions on the table, I’m going to cut to the chase and focus on the technology to accomplish this screening.  A couple of weeks ago DHS’ S&T Directorate testified before the House Homeland Security Committee on this subject.  Their testimony was disappointing.  After several years of Congress requiring DHS to screen more and more cargo, it appears the department is no closer to improving various technology solutions.

S&T’s principal technology approach is to adopt the various screening technologies being used for passengers checked baggage (EDS, ETD) for the cargo environment.  While this sounds good, I have some reservations.  First, much work has been involved in getting EDS false alarm rates at an acceptable level when screening checked baggage.  When you begin to screen air cargo, with much more diverse contents, with EDS the false alarms are likely to increase.  In addition, this equipment is expensive and will likely not be widely deployed or used by third-party vendors.

S&T has spent the past 3 years conducting three separate tests to screen break bulk cargo.  Instead of looking at new and innovative technologies, they simply used existing equipment TSA uses to screen passengers and baggage.  Hardly the type of vision needed for this application.

S&T has also spent minimal time and resources looking at advanced x-ray systems to screen palletized cargo.  Right now, both TSA and S&T are saying that the screening of break bulk cargo is the only way to accomplish the Congressional mandates.  This requires the palletized cargo to be broken down and repackaged, once screening is complete.   This is time intensive and costly.  S&T should be engaged in an aggressive R&D program to get large scale air cargo screening technology out the door in the next 12 – 18 months, instead of the 3 – 5 years it had testified to.

S&T is not alone here.  TSA must do its part.  As of today, TSA has not completed its assessment of which technologies (that are available today) are effective for screening air cargo.  Thus, these third-party vendors who will implement the CCSP are not running out to purchase equipment.  The longer TSA delays its assessment, the more risk faces the program and deadlines Congress established.