Amid political chaos, some hope from above for cargo security

Brandon Fried is the executive director of the U.S. Airforwarders Association

Despite the political discord in Washington, D.C., aviation stakeholders need only look up to the sky for some bipartisan relief as the U.S. Congress passed legislation for funding the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the next five years.

Every few years, Congress is required to enact legislation that sets the FAA’s funding levels and policy priorities, which is known as “reauthorization.” The FAA has operated under two short-term extensions of its legislative authority since 2017, and the new bill includes mandates for aviation safety, drone integration, general programs and even airliner seat dimensions. Of particular importance to our industry, the new FAA reauthorization legislation includes specific air cargo provisions that turn prior initiatives and ideas into required mandates.

After years of research and debates, followed by a Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) initiative that promises to have private, third-party dog teams being allowed to screen cargo, the recently passed FAA legislation now mandates the canine initiative. TSA may not have needed the law to force the advancement of the canine program since the effort is well on its way within the agency. Nevertheless, the agency now promises to have privately supplied, certified canines screening cargo by December of this year.

The new law also forces an assessment of the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP), a voluntary program designed to allow shippers, 3PLs and forwarders to take part in cargo screening. The reauthorization directs TSA administrators to review and report back to Congress about the program’s effectiveness at fully addressing evolving threats to air cargo, mainly as volumes fluctuate. The review also includes a mandate to assess information-sharing between the CCSP stakeholders and make improvements through rulemaking, if needed.

Now that physical screening happens to each box, many stakeholders and some lawmakers wonder if the “known shipper” designation is as valid a tool as it was in the past. The reauthorization is ordering the TSA Aviation Security Advisory Committee to conduct a comprehensive security assessment of the Known Shipper Program and to recommend whether it should be modified or eliminated now that 100 percent physical screening of air cargo is required.

Air cargo security uses a multilayered, risk-based system, using information as well as physical screening methods. The notion of removing a layer such as the Known Shipper Program may be impractical, but if so, changes are needed to make the program more efficient and effective. For example, the TSA Known Shipper Management System must be streamlined to accommodate a growing diversity of shippers brought about by the recent spike in e-commerce-related shipping. Like the Internal Revenue Service, which now offers quick and precise online tax filing, TSA should also provide a user-friendly web platform to determine known-shipper status quickly without technical challenges and vagueness in its determinations.

If one visits TSA headquarters today, finding an office dedicated to air cargo would be impossible because no such office exists. However, under the FAA Reauthorization Act, the TSA administrator must establish an air cargo security division to engage stakeholders directly regarding the implementation of agency policy. Existing TSA leadership must also staff the office with no less than four full-time TSA employees. TSA Administrator David Pekoske correctly told Congress that, in the event of an air cargo issue, stakeholders should not have to search the TSA headquarters for someone who knows and understands our industry.

In its 15-year history, the TSA has had seven administrators and six acting administrators. Most of the turnover is due to changing political administrations, but this leadership revolving door has caused confusing policy interpretation and significant morale issues for agency employees and stakeholders. Congress agreed and attempted to provide more stability by extending the TSA administrator’s term to five years.

Despite the Air Cargo Advance Screening (ACAS) initiative already imposed and implemented, the FAA Reauthorization Act now mandates the collection of advanced electronic cargo import information from air carriers and others within the supply chain. The law further requires that the government establish a system allowing freight forwarders and others to provide such data, and we hope that these systems are offered at nominal cost so that many stakeholders can participate by filing the required data as early as possible.

The FAA Reauthorization Act is a comprehensive piece of legislation that sets the tone for aviation security policy and funding for the next five years. The new law removes uncertainty in many aspects of aviation, including implementation for our nation’s air traffic control improvement plan. Air cargo stakeholders should be encouraged by the possibilities of improving existing programs, and, of course, the prospect of wider airline passenger seats in their future travels.

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