A couple weeks ago, air cargo industry representatives came together in Washington, DC, to hold an informational roundtable on the upcoming Congressional deadline mandating that 100 percent of all cargo carried on passenger aircraft be screened for explosives. The roundtable was broadcast live from the Newseum and the recorded version is available for viewing on UStream.

When I served at the Transportation Security Administration as Assistant Secretary Kip Hawley’s principal adviser for congressional relations and legislative strategy, I worked closely with the “9/11 Commission Recommendations Act,” which is where the air cargo mandate originated. That is one of the reasons I agreed to serve as moderator for the roundtable, because I understand the potentially severe ramifications of the mandate. And I am not alone. Talking with the aviation security leaders who participated in the roundtable, we delivered the message that time is of the essence, and over 10,000 people logged on to view the webcast. This is both good and bad.

It is bad because thousands of shippers have not prepared for the impending deadline on August 3, 2010. It is good because since the webcast, hundreds have responded by signing up for the Transportation Security Administration’s Certified Cargo Shipper Program (CCSP). This voluntary program offers the only efficient plan to guarantee that cargo will be shipped without overly intrusive and sometimes harmful screening measures.

At this point, TSA confirms that 75 percent of all cargo shipped on passenger airliners is screened. This includes cargo shipped via CCSP. The last 25 percent of the cargo that must be screened before August 3, however, represents the most challenging segment of the mandate. This includes shipments that are banded or shrink-wrapped on pallets. These palleted shipments, if not shipped by CCSP certified shippers, must be disassembled or opened to be screened.

One of the problems for those late to the party may lie with the misunderstanding of the invitation. Sure, the government sets deadlines all the time, but when the regulatory or enforcement agency finally realizes the onerous effects of their regulation, it builds an escape clause for those unwittingly caught unaware; so the conventional thinking goes. However, this deadline is set by statute without a provision for an extension. TSA possesses no authority to extend the deadline or soften its affects. Reality bites when shippers realize that by not being CCSP certified, their products must be screened at the airport. And if that product can’t be screened because the air carrier doesn’t possess screening equipment or the packaging can’t be opened, the product is not shipped.

TSA continues its outreach plan with town hall meetings and other informational products. Realizing that this isn’t an exam they can cram for (the CCSP process takes several weeks), many shippers are starting to take notice. TSA has seen applications for CCSP quadruple over the last month, and industry participation will determine the viability of the voluntary CCSP.

If industry fails or refuses to participate, it can expect a boot on its throat in the not too distant future. In less threatening verbiage, this means that shipping cargo on passenger aircraft may soon find its place in a corner of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.

Jeff Sural serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP. He will focus his practice on homeland security and transportation matters on Capitol Hill and in federal government agencies. Read More