Air Cargo Security
BBC is reporting a “major” hole in air cargo security. Basically, cargo is being flown on passenger planes without being screened. A would-be terrorist could therefore blow up a passenger plane by shipping a bomb via FedEx.
In general, cargo deserves much less security scrutiny than passengers. Here’s the reasoning:
Cargo planes are much less of a terrorist risk than passenger planes, because terrorism is about innocents dying. Blowing up a planeload of FedEx packages is annoying, but not nearly as terrorizing as blowing up a planeload of tourists. Hence, the security around air cargo doesn’t have to be as strict.
Given that, if most air cargo flies around on cargo planes, then it’s okay for some small amount—assuming it’s random and assuming the shipper doesn’t know which packages beforehand—of cargo to fly as baggage on passenger planes. A would-be terrorist would be better off taking his bomb and blowing up a bus than shipping it and hoping it might possibly be put on a passenger plane.
At least, that’s the theory. But theory and practice are different.
The British system involves “known shippers”:
Under a system called “known shipper” or “known consignor” companies which have been security vetted by government appointed agents can send parcels by air, which do not have to be subjected to any further security checks.
Unless a package from a known shipper arouses suspicion or is subject to a random search it is taken on trust that its contents are safe.
Captain Gary Boettcher, president of the US Coalition Of Airline Pilots Associations, says the “known shipper” system “is probably the weakest part of the cargo security today”.
“There are approx 1.5 million known shippers in the US. There are thousands of freight forwarders. Anywhere down the line packages can be intercepted at these organisations,” he said.
“Even reliable respectable organisations, you really don’t know who is in the warehouse, who is tampering with packages, putting parcels together.”
This system has already been exploited by drug smugglers:
Mr Adeyemi brought pounds of cocaine into Britain unchecked by air cargo, transported from the US by the Federal Express courier company. He did not have to pay the postage.
This was made possible because he managed to illegally buy the confidential Fed Ex account numbers of reputable and security cleared companies from a former employee.
An accomplice in the US was able to put the account numbers on drugs parcels which, as they appeared to have been sent by known shippers, arrived unchecked at Stansted Airport.
When police later contacted the companies whose accounts and security clearance had been so abused they discovered they had suspected nothing.
And it’s not clear that a terrorist can’t figure out which shipments are likely to be put on passenger aircraft:
However several large companies such as FedEx and UPS offer clients the chance to follow the progress of their parcels online.
This is a facility that Chris Yates, an expert on airline security for Jane’s Transport, says could be exploited by terrorists.
“From these you can get a fair indication when that package is in the air, if you are looking to get a package into New York from Heathrow at a given time of day.
And BBC reports that 70% of cargo is shipped on passenger planes. That seems like too high a number.
If we had infinite budget, of course we’d screen all air cargo. But we don’t, and it’s a reasonable trade-off to ignore cargo planes and concentrate on passenger planes. But there are some awfully big holes in this system.