Air cargo supply chain disruptions expected if U.S. shutdown persists

Caryn Livingston

The current United States federal government shutdown is already the longest in history with no clear end in sight, and industry associations and participants are concerned that aviation and airfreight will suffer in the short- and long-term if it is not resolved soon. Our sister site Cargo Facts reported some of those concerns related to aircraft certification last week, but daily operations also stand to be affected if the shutdown continues longer-term.

In a DHL Resilience360 post yesterday, the company said the extended shutdown is at the point “where further continuation will have noticeable impact on supply chains.” Although many essential employees in U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are continuing to work without pay and therefore performing essential security operations related to aviation, many federal contractors perform less public-facing tasks that are still vital to the industry, including updating databases and information sources related to the U.S. tariff schedule.

The shutdown has had a more noticeable impact on the passenger side, as recent coverage noted that Miami International Airport (MIA) and George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston both closed certain security checkpoints over TSA “sickouts,” with unpaid TSA agents calling in sick at unusually high rates. In a statement today, the TSA said that unscheduled absences are up slightly compared to the same time last year, and that many employees are reporting they are unable to work due to financial hardships. As the DHL post noted, “While essential employee provisions and automated flagging serve as an important contingency measure, further slowdowns by TSA employees, whose responsibilities include outbound shipment inspection, could be a sign of similar operational slowdowns to come.”

So far, the impact on cargo screening at major U.S. airports seems minimal, with both MIA and IAH telling Air Cargo World that cargo screening operations at the airports are still running smoothly. As Brandon Fried, Executive Director of the Airforwarders Association, told Air Cargo World, that is likely because air cargo operations are less reliant on TSA screening on a day-to-day basis than the passenger side.

According to Fried, thanks to earlier efforts from the industry to work with the U.S. Congress, the industry is able to pre-screen a significant portion of air cargo before it arrives at airports – about 50 percent of cargo moving in bellies of passenger aircraft arrives pre-screened, by his estimates. The recent approval for K9 screening also came just in time, Fried added, to enable the industry to handle much of its own screening during the shut-down.

However, the air cargo industry still relies on federal employees currently furloughed or working without pay for many other functions, including guidance on routine security screening, permit renewals, application processing and certain export licenses required from the Department of Defense. Although day-to-day operations are still ongoing for those employees deemed essential, needed guidance and more complex processes are falling by the wayside during the shutdown.

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