Oct 30, 2010 5:38 PM by Andrea Babin
LONDON (AP) - The mail bombs discovered aboard cargo jets in
England and Dubai could very easily have ended up on passenger
planes, which carry more than half of the international air cargo
coming into the U.S., experts say.
And experts caution that cargo, even when loaded onto passenger
planes, is sometimes lightly inspected or even completely
unexamined, particularly when it comes from countries without
well-developed aviation security systems.
About 60 percent of all cargo flown into the U.S. is on
passenger planes, according to Brandon Fried, a cargo security
expert and executive director of the Airforwarders Association. New
jumbo jets flying in from overseas - like the Boeing 777 - have
"cavernous" bellies where freight is stored, he said.
Most countries require parcels placed on passenger flights by
international shipping companies to go through at least one
security check. Methods include hand checks, sniffer dogs, X-ray
machines and high-tech devices that can find traces of explosives
on paper or cloth swabs.
But air shipping is governed by a patchwork of inconsistent
controls that make packages a potential threat even to passenger
jets, experts said Saturday. Security protocols vary widely around
the world, whether they're related to passenger aircraft or cargo
That at least two parcels containing explosives could be placed
on cargo-only flights to England and Dubai, one in a FedEx shipment
from Yemen, was a dramatic example of the risks, but the dangers
have been obvious for years, analysts said.
Some Western countries, perhaps belatedly, are trying now to
manage the risks.
Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May said the device discovered
early Friday morning at England's East Midlands Airport was
potentially able to explode - and could have been used to bring
down a plane. She said the U.K. has now banned the movement of all
unaccompanied air freight originating from Yemen.
France's civil aviation authority also suspended air freight
from Yemen, as did the world's largest package delivery companies -
FedEx and UPS.
One particular vulnerability in the system: Trusted companies
that regularly do business with freight shippers are allowed to
ship parcels as "secure" cargo that is not automatically
subjected to further checks.
And even where rules are tight on paper, enforcement can be lax.
A U.S. government team that visited cargo sites around the world
last year found a range of glaring defects, said John Shingleton,
managing director of Handy Shipping Guide, an industry information
"They walked into a warehouse where supposedly secure cargo
was," he said, declining to say where that was. "Generally
security is high, but if you think it's perfect you're kidding
Cargo companies have long shipped on passenger airlines, for
whom cargo provides extra income. Passenger planes often carry the
most perishable goods shipped internationally, like live seafood,
fresh flowers and even human organs.
Authorities are well aware of the risks cargo aboard passenger
planes poses, as shown by the decision Friday to have American
fighter jets escort an Emirates Airlines passenger jet down the
coast to New York to keep track of it until its cargo had been
Air freight generally consists of the most expensive cargo,
everything from designer clothing and prescription drugs to car
parts and mobile phones. Freight is often transported in large
pallets, which are generally not taken apart to inspect because the
process would significantly slow down air travel and the movement
About 50,000 tons of cargo is shipped by air within the U.S.
every day, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
About 25 percent of that is shipped by passenger airlines. Mike
Boyd, who heads an aviation industry consulting firm in Colorado,
said cargo is often put onboard passenger flights at the last
minute, similar to passengers flying on standby.
Inside the U.S., new rules that took effect in August require
that every piece of cargo be checked for explosives. Cargo is
increasingly screened by X-ray machines and handheld wands - the
TSA has approved dozens of new machines in the past two years that
can detect traces of explosive materials.
But those rules don't cover goods coming in from other
"We've known for decades that freight isn't as secure - this
isn't a surprise," security expert Bruce Schneier said. "You
can't protect every package. There's no way."
Cargo that travels through airports in countries with high
threat levels and advanced security systems is often safer. The
system at London's busy Heathrow Airport is relatively effective
because cargo is held for 24 hours, giving authorities time to
check it properly, according to Shingleton.
Still, since August U.S. aviation officials have been pressing
the European Union to require the X-raying of every package placed
on passenger planes, but they have met resistance because of the
cost and logistics involved in screening such a huge amount of
material, aviation safety consultant Chris Yates said.
"Is it possible one of these devices could get on passenger
jets?" Yates said. "I'm not convinced it could on flights between
London and the States, but it could get on from less secure parts
of the world, including the Middle East. If you talk to anybody
senior at airports, they will tell you freight is the weak link in
X-Ray machines are not an effective tool to screen bulk cargo
because of the large size and number of the items that need to be
inspected, said Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security
International, while more sophisticated technology, like gamma-ray
machines, are extremely expensive.
Baum warned that it would be foolhardy to downplay the threat
posed by cargo-only planes, since those could be loaded with an
explosive device that could be detonated when the plane is on its
final approach over a major city.
"Security in the UK is pretty good, the U.S. is not bad, but
aviation is a global business and we need effective regimes around
the globe," he said. "Cargo travels on both cargo-only and on
combi-aircraft, which have passengers and cargo, and cargo is not
subject to the same screening requirements as passengers'
Bomkamp reported from New York. Raphael G. Satter in London and
Adam Schreck in Dubai contributed to this report.