Air Cargo Security – Problems & Solutions

Air cargo is tricky. There’s no way around that. It’s not unusual for passenger planes to carry cargo in addition to passengers and their

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luggage, and naturally, that cargo doesn’t get checked in or scanned at the TSA (or equivalent) checkpoint. This means that cargo needs to be checked in other ways, to ensure that nothing in it can harm the aircraft or those on board. If air cargo is left unchecked, anyone can send anything they want, be it pressurized gas containers that will blow up in a cargo hold, to liquids that can leak out and damage an aircraft, to bombs and guns and whatnot else one might come up with in order to damage an aircraft.

That would be bad, right? Right.

Cargo Security – A Simple Overview

– First Line. 

It’s a cliché to talk about “lines of defense”, really, but let’s do it anyway. It’s easier that way. The first line of defense in cargo security is trust. Trust is usually something you have to earn, but in this case, you start out with a little bit anyway. There are strict regulations in place to control and restrict the things that can be sent by air cargo. You can’t send this, you can’t send that, etc. You get the drift. International organizations review and agree on these regulations after having them drawn up by experts, and after they’re approved, everyone who has anything to do with air cargo has to adhere to them.

So why are we talking about trust? Well, the cargo companies will publish these restrictions, inform their customers about them and then trust that the customer will actually follow them and not send prohibited items in their packages. This actually works, to a certain extent, but we have to figure in people’s ignorance – i.e. they don’t know about the restrictions – and/or ill will. By ill will we mean everything from not caring about the regulations, only about own needs, to terrorists actively trying to harm an aircraft.

The first line of defense probably takes care of a lot of “accidental” harmful packages. Then there’s the rest.

– Second Line.

Responsibility/Liability and Traceability. This means that the customer will be Responsible for any damage the package does. People don’t like being responsible for that kind of thing. Once the customer understands this, he or she will possibly thing twice about sending that restricted goods, and we’re rid of a few more dangerous packages. The ability to trace where a package came from, and where it was supposed to go is what makes it risky to try and send something restricted by air cargo. The clear possibility of authorities finding out who sent the package that brought the plane down will deter many from sending restricted goods.

That’s the second line. But there’s bound to be more, right? Those who really want to send a bomb up won’t be deterred by, basically, just their own fear and conscience, after all. That is true. The point here is that the possible number of dangerous packages have been reduced, at this point, to an amount that is manageable by other security measures.

– Third Line.

This is where human handling comes into play. The employees at any cargo company are all important in the efforts to secure air cargo. This goes for the clerk or driver that receives or collects the package in the first place, to security investigators within the company itself, to cargo handlers in the package centers and security officers present.

A clerk or driver might react to how a customer behaves when the package is collected or received, they might react to how a package feels or how the invoice is completed, how the packing list looks compared to weight/feel etc, how payment is made, or if the customer is brand new or a regular. There are many variables, but the important thing is that every employee is instructed to report suspicious behavior or “bad feelings” to their supervisor.

There may be other visual signs too – leaking or stained packages will be removed by handlers and investigated, and the same goes for damaged packages. Packages making sounds on their own are probably the most unnerving ones – they are infrequent, however.

– Fourth Line.

For all intents and purposes, this is the last line of defense when it comes to detecting threats in air cargo. The actual “security measures” that are implemented to screen the cargo that remains after passing all of the lines we’ve described above.

Any package that is destined to end up in the cargo hold of an aircraft will be screened using over-sized x-ray machines. Personnel trained in the use of such machines and certified for airport security is required, and they will detect threats in air cargo. In addition, many locations will use explosives detection equipment – “sniffers” – to find packages that contain or have come into contact with explosives. These machines can detect trace amounts of any explosive, and are extremely useful even in airports.

After the cargo goes through x-ray scanning and has been cleared for take-off, so to speak, they’re only handled by cleared personnel in restricted areas, loaded onto vehicles that are sealed and sent directly to the cleared areas of the departure airport. This ensures that no one can place anything in the vehicle that hasn’t been checked and cleared.

A perfect system?

No, of course not. This is only how it’s done today, with the tools that are available. A priority in the handling of air cargo is also prevention of undue delays. If this hadn’t been an issue, then opening every package would be the way to go, of course, and only one, highly monitored employee would be allowed to handle the packages after that check, load vehicles and drive them to the airport. That’s not perfect either, of course, but it’s a way of describing the outer limits of securing cargo. We’ve aimed to provide this page as a guide to how air cargo is secured, and to describe the methods used today.

We welcome debate, however, so please leave a comment if you have something to say or a question – we’ll try to answer everyone.