I’ve been writing about inbound air cargo screening on this blog and elsewhere for some time (See The Air Cargo Screening Mandate for Inbound Cargo). The recent detection of explosives in air cargo bound for the United States is now putting this issue in the spotlight. Here are some key points to note:

1. Most importantly, the U.S. Government lacks a process to obtain data and analyze risks with respect to air cargo. This situation is in stark contrast to the robust systems for obtaining and analyzing risks regarding inbound passengers and inbound maritime cargo.

2. Thanks to good work by TSA, there is a reasonably protective system for conducting physical screening of cargo on passenger planes traveling within or from the United States. But this leaves uncovered cargo on: (i) “all-cargo” flights; and (ii) flights (whether passenger or all cargo) from foreign locations headed to the United States.

3. It would not be hard to develop a risk-rating system for air cargo that would cover all flights with a U.S. nexus (whether inbound or domestic departure; whether passenger or all cargo). Under current rules, data on air cargo (such as cargo contents, carrier, departure and arrival points, shipper identity, etc.) generally must be provided to CBP either (i) before a flight departs for the United States (for flights departing from within North America) or (ii) four hours before the flight lands (for flights departing from outside North America). That often is inadequate time for even a well-automated risk assessment, and in any event this information generally is not used to assign risks to cargo.

4. We were fortunate to have good intelligence and law enforcement work that prevented a catastrophe from the air cargo explosives plot. But DHS should revise its data collection system (including timing requirements) into a robust data screening system to give us an added layer of protection.