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U.S. Air Cargo Exporters Facing New Challenge

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Doug Brittin

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A new challenge faces U.S.-based shippers who export cargo by air. Effective July 1, 2021, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) now requires that, in addition to 100% of cargo transported in the bellies of passenger aircraft, all export cargo carried on freighter aircraft must also be 100% screened for explosive devices.

This new requirement has some shippers, freight forwarders, and freighter operators scrambling to comply. The requirement for passenger carriers has been in place since 2010. Finally closing this security gap for freighter aircraft has a significant impact since a large percentage of cargo, especially that which is oversize or limited to upper deck transport, poses a challenge to screening done by traditional methods and technology (physical search, X-ray, Explosive Trace Detection (ETD), etc.).

Screening performed by TSA-approved canine provider teams (K9s) has been in place since late 2018. These teams have proven extremely effective in screening a wide range of cargo configurations efficiently. However, TSA initially placed limitations on the size of shipments and specific commodities which they are allowed to screen. As a result, screening procedures for these specific items have only recently been addressed by TSA, and freighter operators are continuing to push for clarification.

“The airfreight forwarding industry continues to work with TSA in the implementation of this important security mandate but will need the agency’s further concise guidance to successfully do so,” said Brandon Fried, Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Airforwarders Association and member of the Board of Directors of the University of Denver’s Transportation Institute. The airlines and certified K9 screening providers only received their much-awaited security program updates from TSA in the latter half of June. With training and other operational lead times required, that made it difficult to have them fully in place by July 1.

To navigate these complicated issues and ensure there are no interruptions to their customers overseas, shippers may want to consult with their air freight forwarding partner(s) to discuss alternatives and procedures to avoid potential delays. These could include becoming part of the TSA’s Certified Cargo Screening Standard Security Program (CCSSSP), which has helped shippers and forwarders comply with the 100% mandate on passenger aircraft since 2010. Although many freight forwarders also participate in that program and can screen cargo to avoid delays at airports, they are also limited by the TSA K9 size/configuration limitations, whereas a shipper who adopts the program can actually screen its own cargo as it prepares it for shipping.

The TSA has also recently developed a program called the Secured Packing Facility (SPF), whereby a shipper must essentially certify to all of its forwarder partners that it maintains specific (and still TBD) standards for areas such as: facility security, personnel hiring, and background checks, training, transport, and other measures. However, this program also requires a significant operational and cost burden for each freight forwarder involved, and to date most have been reluctant to engage in the program. As the SPF only became finalized in mid-June, they have opted to defer until they have had a chance to review its full impact on cost and legal liability.

Currently, freighter operators, as well as freight forwarders, are striving to bring onboard as many K9 teams as possible. “From an aviation security and compliance perspective, K9 teams must be thoroughly trained and operationally prepared to meet the expanded demand in the current air cargo screening environment,” notes Eric Hare, President and CEO at Global K9 Protection Group, LLC. “This training process takes 45 to 120 days to complete properly depending on the experience of the handlers. It is extremely important for organizations providing this solution to have subject matter experts from both the air cargo and K9 security industries.”  Although extremely effective, these K9 teams cannot be turned on like a light switch.

The air cargo industry continues to work with TSA to find practical solutions to the challenging and difficult-to-screen commodities noted herein.