The House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee recently passed authorization for the Department of Homeland Security – an annual task. While critics and proponents of the new authorization debate its merits and failings, there is one DHS office notably absent from the legislation – the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Authorization for TSA is being considered in a separate bill – the Transportation Security Administration Authorization Act of 2011 (H.R. 3011). The act includes a section on air cargo screening, and not of the 100 percent kind. Rather, described is an Air Cargo Advanced Screening Pilot Program (ACAS). Far from a blanket security mandate, the ACAS is a voluntary program that accepts advanced (or pre-loading) electronic data from forwarders and carriers to target high-risk cargo. The goal for the ACAS project is twofold:
1. Establish appropriate communications systems with freight forwarders and air carriers; and
2. Encourage freight forwarders and air carriers to provide shipment-level data for air cargo, departing from any location inbound to the United States.
The ACAS program is focused on identifying “high-risk” cargo. There are thousands of tons of cargo flown throughout the world every day – nearly all of it safe and legitimate. Terrorists and other evildoers might sneak a dangerous package into the otherwise secure supply chain, but finding the illicit shipment is like looking for a needle in a haystack, constantly uncertain whether the needle is there to begin with. Yet, there are ways to narrow the search, one of which is analyzing cargo data to identify shipments most likely to be threatening. This is risk-based screening.
Screening all cargo before flight to the United States would slow the international supply chain to a crawl. Given the tons of air cargo shipped every day, a risk-based approach is the only feasible solution to finding threats in the supply chain. Part of realizing risk-based screening is a collaborative approach. TSA, carriers and forwarders can work together to isolate the greatest potential threats, singling them out for physical screening. This approach relies on a collaborative relationship between TSA and the air cargo industry, something the authorization bill promotes.
The bill reads:
“In carrying out the ACAS Program, the (DHS) Secretary shall consult with the trade community to ensure that an operationally feasible and practical approach to the collection of advanced air cargo information and inspection of high-risk cargo is adopted that recognizes the significant differences among air cargo business models and modes of transportation.” [Emphasis added]
This emphasis on collaborative security efforts is music to the ears of any supply chain stakeholder who struggled to meet the much-debated 100 percent screening law, handed down to industry from Congress without critically important, “operationally feasible” considerations.
Given the heated political mood in Washington, the TSA bill is sure to spur congressional debate. When the dust settles, hopefully the risk-based clarity and collaborative focus found in the bill remain pillars of America’s air cargo security efforts.