Cargo Insights: Air cargo gains a seat at the security table

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

Passing through any TSA passenger airport screening checkpoint in the summer can be as unpleasant as getting your driver’s license renewed or receiving dental work – you never know how long the process will take or how much pain will be involved. Most frequent fliers have begrudgingly accepted that the often-tedious process of airport security is a necessary means of getting to our destination as quickly and safely as possible.

Much like their passenger counterparts, cargo stakeholders share a similar frustration with airport security, after enduring TSA challenges of their own. However, they may finally be getting relief from the heat as beneficial changes are coming down soon.

It has been 18 years this month, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, since legislation passed that began the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. Throughout the agency’s life, freight forwarders and their airline partners have endured a stream of disruptive leadership turnover, conflicting policy interpretations, and inconsistent enforcement. Along the way, TSA experienced its growing pains, while the air cargo community patiently waited for the signs of maturity which naturally arise from a long learning process.

The sensitive nature of the TSA’s security-driven mandate has allowed the agency to regulate itself, and this may be the reason for many of its past and current issues. Its leadership has often struggled with a natural defensiveness in protecting its policies.  Such protectionism existed even when its rules lacked clarity or a concise security benefit. The need to safeguard leadership, workers and poorly conceived strategy could be the reason why TSA may have, in the past, been slow to react to cargo industry concerns.

Industry itself has taken its own measures to ensure as much cohesive security oversight as possible. The Aviation Security Advisory Committee and affiliated working groups have served as a prime example of an effective regulatory agency platform for stakeholder input and policy co-creation. Despite its growing pains, the committee has allowed freight forwarders and the aviation industry to provide expert advice and feedback on policies, procedures and security directives. Meetings frequently include the Agency administrator in attendance while the group provides recommendations on transportation security policy. While TSA does not implement every suggestion, these measures assure cargo stakeholders that they have a seat at the table.

The recently passed FAA Reauthorization Act contains provisions that marked the first-ever legislative modernization of TSA since the agency was founded in 2001. As a result of this legislation, TSA must now expand its field operations, test advanced screening technologies, increase the use of canine cargo screening and perhaps most importantly, open an air cargo division within the agency. These measures will be massively beneficial to industry stakeholders, and have been long anticipated by several industry groups, such as airlines, freight forwarders, and airports.

A positive development stemming from the legislation, but well underway before the law passed, is the third-party canine screening program, which allows forwarders and other certified cargo screeners to use the services of canines and teams that perform screening tasks in cargo facilities away from the airport. The program provides for quicker screening using technology as a backup tool to satisfy any detection issues. The freight forwarding industry advocated for the use of private canine services to perform the task and is glad to see that TSA supported the initiative to make it a reality.

TSA also recently released the first draft of its “Action Plan Program.” The draft document provides an opportunity for stakeholders and TSA to discuss and reach an agreement on corrective actions to address the root causes of security vulnerability. It also provides standards for noncompliance with agency security requirements, instead of the previous policy which was immediate civil enforcement action. While the document is still evolving, the recent announcement of upcoming industry engagement webinars about the proposed policy is undoubtedly encouraging. These sessions are indicative of a willingness to consider and accept stakeholder feedback.

While each of these newly approved elements of cargo security presents its own important benefit for the industry, the most encouraging and perhaps beneficial development for the air freight community is the opening of TSA’s new air cargo division. While several TSA employees have valuable new industry experience, the agency lacked a specific department focused on the unique requirements and security concerns relating to our unique industry. Its appointed leader is knowledgeable about our business, has a firm grasp on existing policies, and is well-known to stakeholders in the cargo and forwarding communities.

The Airforwarders Association looks forward to working with the director of TSA’s new cargo division, John Beckius, and his team in helping our industry increase cargo security. Policies must be concise, practical and provide safety, while assuring the adequate flow of commerce. Now more than ever before we are keenly aware that changes throughout the air cargo supply chain require an adaptive policy approach which is reflective of current commercial reality.

Passenger screening continues to advance and evolve as TSA works to identify opportunities to balance efficiency and effectiveness at the checkpoint. We, as cargo stakeholders, on the other hand, continue to experience similar frustrations which are tied more closely to policy and enforcement at a high level. We hope that these recent encouraging developments may be helping to make our TSA visits more productive and less tedious. As always, please send your ideas for process improvements to the Airforwarders Association, so that we may share them with TSA and make sure your voice is heard.

Brandon Fried is the Executive Director of the Airforwarders Association. He writes the Cargo Insights column for Air Cargo World.

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