Since our last Supply Chain Matters commentary, additional information has come forth regarding the recent terrorist incidents involving bombs hidden in air cargo shipments, and governments and the air transport industry will need to come-up with a practical response to a growing threat.

Two different packages containing HP P2055 LaserJet desktop printers, air shipped from Yemen, one on a UPS cargo plane seized in the United Kingdom, and one in a FedEx cargo facility in Dubai, have both been confirmed as containing explosive devices within their respective toner cartridges.  The top bombmaker of Al-Qaida is strongly suspected as the mastermind, and the incident is widely believed to have exposed vulnerabilities in the global air cargo system.

Both packages which originated in Yemen, began their journey as carried baggage on civilian airliners and were later transferred to air cargo carriers. Both packages were reported as having bombs containing 300 and 400 grams of the industrial explosive PETN, almost five times more powerful than the bomb carried by a terrorist last December on a Detroit bound airliner. Press reports indicate that the UPS shipment that arrived in East Midlands in Britain initially tested negative for explosives and the flight was cleared for departure. After a tip to the potential threat, and the second package found in Dubai tested positive, did British security teams take a second look.  Intelligence officials now believe that both bombs were intended to be detonated in-flight, which presents a new and credible threat to international air transport. As we noted in our previous commentary, the implications of this heightened threat to air commerce is one that supply chain professionals need to pay close attention.

On August 1st, new U.S. CSCP (Certified Cargo Screening Program) directives went into effect that required all air cargo originating in the U.S. to be screened at the piece level, prior to transport on a passenger aircraft. This program also includes incoming international originated passenger flights. There is some speculation that shippers are now avoiding passenger aircraft cargo to avoid the added costs of inspection.

Congressmen Edward Markey of Massachusetts was the primary sponsor of this air cargo directive.  In light of these latest incidents, Mr. Markey has now called for extension of the program to include 100 percent of all air cargo, including air cargo carriers.  With the recent U.S. election results, one wonders how legislators will respond to this call. Both the Homeland Security Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and air cargo carriers believe that 100 percent inspection is highly impractical at this point.  Technology has not yet provided practical approaches, and inspection processes implemented on today’s system would cripple air shipments, let alone carriers such as FedEx and UPS.  One report noted that a single inspection scanner could cost upwards of $10 million, and would require a five to ten minute process to check each shipment.

The status quo, however, is not an appropriate response, and some changes will have to be adopted.  In our view, this is a situation where governments, shippers, and air transport providers need to come together to adopt practical, yet stepped-up security approaches.  At a minimum, countries that harbor suspected terrorist activities should continue to be identified and targeted for high levels of outbound cargo inspection, even if it requires additional delays in movement.  Carriers such as DHL, FedEx, and UPS have highly sophisticated tracking technology, and each should allocate additional investment in integrating tracking with inspection identification and control. Additional bomb-sniffing dogs can also be explored. Foreign governments and the International Air Transport Association need to add their added cooperation and intent toward practical stepped-up surveillance of the global air transport system.  Fostering continuation of the status-quo only invites further incidents and potential loss of life and property.

Terrorists will continue to exploit weaknesses in global cargo security system and groups need to come together in implementing immediate and longer-term practical approaches towards security and safety of air cargo.

Bob Ferrari