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Air Cargo Security

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Publication Date: July 2007

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL32022

Topic: Transportation (Air transport)

Abstract:

The air cargo system is a complex, multi-faceted network that handles a vast amount of freight, packages, and mail carried aboard passenger and all-cargo aircraft. The air cargo system is vulnerable to several security threats including potential plots to place explosives aboard aircraft; illegal shipments of hazardous materials; criminal activities such as smuggling and theft; and potential hijackings and sabotage by persons with access to aircraft. While it is generally agreed that full screening of all cargo placed on aircraft is not currently feasible, several procedural and technology initiatives have been proposed to enhance air cargo security and deter terrorist and criminal threats. Procedural initiatives include proposals to: expand the "known shipper" program; increase cargo inspections; increase physical security of air cargo facilities; increase oversight of air cargo operations; provide security training for cargo workers; and tighten controls over access to aircraft during cargo operations. Technology being considered to improve air cargo security includes tamper-resistant and tamper-evident packaging and containers; explosive detection systems and other cargo screening technologies; blast-resistant cargo containers; and biometric systems for worker identification and access control.

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA, P.L. 107-71) contains general provisions for cargo screening, inspection, and security measures. Cargo carried in passenger airplanes must be screened or its security otherwise ensured. In practice, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has relied heavily on "known shipper" programs to prevent shipments of cargo from unknown sources on passenger aircraft. ATSA also mandated that a security plan for all-cargo operations was to be put in place as soon as possible, but aviation security initiatives in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks primarily focused on enhancing the security of passenger operations.

Air cargo security consequently became a significant issue during the 108th Congress. To enhance all-cargo security, Vision 100 (P.L. 108-176) expanded the current program for arming pilots to include all-cargo pilots. Additionally, the FY2005 Homeland Security Appropriations Act (P.L. 108-334) included language calling for a threefold increase in the physical inspections or screening of cargo placed on passenger aircraft. Finally, the National Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-458) included several provisions pertaining to cargo security that establish a pilot program for evaluating the deployment of blast resistant cargo containers; promote the research, development, and deployment of enhanced air cargo security technology; evaluate international air cargo threats; and set a deadline of September 2005 for finalizing proposed rules pertaining to air cargo security. Those proposed rules, disclosed by the TSA in November 2004, would intensify security measures for cargo operations involving both passenger and all-cargo operations and is seen as the core regulatory framework for implementing their strategic plan for air cargo security. That plan centers around risk-based assessments and targeted physical screening of cargo shipments based on risk combined with enhanced measures for controlling access to cargo operations areas and improved vetting of shippers and freight forwarders. This report will be updated as needed.

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