Video: Cargo on commercial flights a security risk?

  1. Transcript of: Cargo on commercial flights a security risk?

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: While air travelers endure the routine of removing shoes, putting their shampoo in sandwich bags and emptying their pockets before boarding a plane, they might assume the cargo that rides below them gets an equal amount of scrutiny. But as NBC 's Peter Alexander tells us, that is not always the case.

    PETER ALEXANDER reporting: For travelers across the globe, new anxiety after the discovery of two bombs on international flights, including one carried on a pair of passenger planes in the Middle East . At Newark Airport today, Lewis Thomas greeted relatives flying in from Sweden .

    Mr. LEWIS THOMAS: I want the system to work, but I also know that there are flaws that can't be controlled.

    ALEXANDER: After 9/11, travelers have grown accustomed to heightened airline security -- screened shoes, pat-downs, even full body scanners -- but the

    precautions may not be addressing what some experts call a major security gap: the shipment of cargo , often on commercial flights.

    Mr. ROGER CRESSEY (NBC News Terrorism Analyst): Up till now we've viewed passenger security on airlines as the higher priority. What this episode demonstrates is that cargo security is now being elevated to a similar, if not higher priority for counterterrorism and law enforcement.

    ALEXANDER: About 60 percent of all cargo flown into the US from overseas arrives on passenger planes. And for packages shipped within this country, roughly 50,000 tons a day, a quarter of that cargo is also put on passenger planes. This summer, the TSA met a federal deadline requiring the screening of 100 percent of all cargo flown on domestic passenger flights. Most of that screening is done by the airlines themselves and federally approved cargo shippers, essentially working on the honor system . But internationally there is no standardized system of scrutiny, and the TSA says it's working to better secure cargo on flights originating overseas.

    Mr. ERROLL SOUTHERS (LAX Former Security Chief): We can reduce the threat, we can reduce the consequences of what may happen as a result of an attack, but we cannot stop an attack from happening 100 percent.

    ALEXANDER: For passengers, one more thing to worry about.

    Unidentified Woman: There's not much we can do about it. So it's pretty -- it's pretty exhausting, really.

    ALEXANDER: As Americans head into the holidays and the busiest shipping season of the year. Peter

updated 11/2/2010 9:50:27 AM ET 2010-11-02T13:50:27

The head of the International Air Transport Association urged governments and industry on Tuesday to rapidly develop effective equipment such as oversized X-ray machines to screen the cargo containers that carry most airborne freight.

Giovanni Bisignani spoke several days after two explosive devices were discovered concealed aboard freight being carried by cargo jets bound for the United States.

Bisignani said the technology for such security equipment already exists, but that it is taking too long to approve it for airport use.

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"There is no technology today that governments have certified to screen standard size pallets and large items," Bisignani told the association's regularly scheduled meeting on the security of passenger and cargo planes. "There is some promising technology, but it is taking far too long to move from the laboratory to the airport. We must speed up the process."

U.S. Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole, who also attended the conference, said a delicate balance needs to be struck to ensure that the enhanced security requirements for air freight do not disrupt global trade.

"The flow of global commerce is key to economic recovery," Pistole said. "Security cannot bring business to a standstill."

He said aviation security was a shared responsibility because the latest events showed that "threats evolve as quickly as we can develop mitigation measures."

"This latest plot highlighted two points," Pistole said. "One that we face a determined and creative enemy with innovative design and concealment of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). And second that we have a critical need for global interdependence in aviation security."

Air freight is often transported in containers that generally are not taken apart to inspect because the process would significantly slow down air travel and the movement of goods.

Currently, airports rely on dogs, trace detection, and visual inspections to check most air cargo containers without having to open them. Screening technology to handle large containers — similar to the passenger X-ray machines in general use — is being tested.

The International Air Transport Association did not estimate how many of the new machines will be needed to check all cargo carried by the world's airlines. A single high-radiation machine would likely cost $5-$6 million, according to manufacturers' estimates.

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Bisignani urged national governments to shoulder at least a portion of the rapidly expanding costs of aviation security. In Europe this is borne by the airports themselves; in the U.S. it is paid for by the federal government.

"I don't understand why security at a football stadium is the government's responsibility, but aviation security is not," he said, adding that last year airlines around the world paid a total of $5.9 billion for security.

Last week, two explosive devices were discovered in Dubai and Britain concealed in freight being carried by cargo jets. Officials have said that without a tip-off from authorities in Saudi Arabia, the bombs may not have been discovered. Both mail bombs were wired to detonators that used cell phone technology.

The International Air Transport Association is promoting a plan to monitor and speed up the movement of all air freight through the use of a single e-freight tag that would do away with the dozens of papers accompanying each freight container by replacing them with a single document similar to the e-tickets used by the vast majority of airline passengers nowadays.

"We believe it is now time to abolish paper from the cargo system ... just as e-tickets replaced the millions of paper tickets," Bisignani said, adding that the new system would "allow us to manage cargo security intelligently and efficiently without compromising on speed."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: About the Secure Flight program

  • Image: plane landing

    Secure Flight is a program developed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in response to a key 9/11 Commission recommendation: uniform watch list matching by TSA. The mission of the Secure Flight program is to enhance the security of domestic and international commercial air travel through the use of improved watch list matching.

    Secure Flight conducts uniform prescreening of passenger information against federal government watch lists for domestic and international flights. TSA is fully taking over this responsibility from airlines beginning Nov. 1. Secure Flight will conduct passenger watch list matching for all domestic and international passengers traveling on covered flights into, out of, within, or over the United States. Secure Flight will also apply to point-to-point international flights operated by U.S.- based airlines.

    By assuming watch list matching responsibilities from the airlines, TSA:

    1. decreases the chance for compromised watch list data by limiting its distribution.

    2. provides earlier identification of potential matches, allowing for expedited notification of law enforcement and threat management.

    3. provides a fair, equitable, and consistent matching process across all airlines.

    4. reduces instances of misidentified individuals.

    5. offers consistent application of an integrated redress process for misidentified individuals through the Department of Homeland Security's Travel Redress Inquiry Program ( DHS TRIP).

  • How does Secure Flight work?

    When passengers travel, they will be required to provide the following Secure Flight Passenger Data (SFPD) to their airline when making a reservation:

    • Name as it appears on government-issued I.D. when traveling
    • Date of birth
    • Gender
    • Redress number (if available)

    TSA matches this information against government watch lists to:

    • identify known and suspected terrorists.
    • prevent individuals on the No Fly List from boarding an aircraft.
    • identify individuals on the Selectee List for enhanced screening.
    • facilitate passenger air travel.
    • protect individuals' privacy.
  • What if the name on my boarding pass is different than what appears on my I.D.?

    Due to differences in boarding pass systems, boarding passes may not always display the exact name you provided when booking your travel. The name you provide when booking your travel is used to perform the watch list matching before a boarding pass is ever issued, so small differences should not impact your travel. You should ensure that the name provided when booking your travel matches the government ID that you will use when traveling. Small differences between the passenger's ID the passenger's reservation information, and the boarding pass (such as the use of a middle initial instead of a full middle name or no middle name/initial at all, hyphens or apostrophes) should not cause a problem for the passenger.

  • Why is Secure Flight collecting this information?

    TSA determined that mandating the provision of the additional data elements of date of birth and gender would greatly reduce the number of passengers misidentified as a match to the watch list. It is to the passenger's advantage to provide the required data elements as doing so may prevent delays or inconveniences at the airport, particularly for those individuals who have been misidentified in the past.

  • What happens if my airline didn't ask for any of that information?

    Secure Flight will be phased-in and each airline will be incorporating the necessary changes into their systems over the coming months. Passengers shouldn't be concerned if particular airlines don't ask them to provide the additional information right away; it should not impact their travel. Each airline will request this information as their capability to capture it is integrated into their individual systems.

  • How do I know if I am on the No-Fly list?

    If a passenger successfully obtains a boarding pass, his/her name is not on the No-Fly list. If a passenger feels they have been misidentified, redress is an opportunity to seek resolution and avoid future delays. The affected passengers often have the same or a similar name to someone on the watch list. Any passenger who believes he/she has been delayed or denied boarding; delayed or denied entry into the U.S. at a port of entry; or been subject to enhanced screening or inspection may seek redress through the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP) at DHS TRIP provides a single portal for travelers to seek redress for adverse screening experiences and to resolve possible watch list misidentification issues.


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