Cargo Security: A Delicate Balance

Last fall, Air New Zealand flight NZ057 was at the terminal on Fiji’s Nadi International Airport, preparing for a three-hour flight home to Auckland. For this leg of the flight, the cargo handler, Air Terminal Services (ATS), owned by the Fiji government, was tasked with loading 13 ULDs full of 27 tons of cargo into the belly of the 777 passenger widebody, bound for destinations in New Zealand and Australia.

As the pushback time approached, however, the scales used by ATS broke down, making it impossible to take an accurate weight measurement for 11 of the 13 containers. ATS called NZ’s regional head of cargo operations, Pradip Singh, to ask what steps to take. Singh, who was playing a round of golf at the time, told ATS to go ahead with loading and rely on the accuracy of the air waybill.

Even though the waybill had provided weights from an earlier measurement, this was a clear breach of protocol. Since 20 of the 27 tons on the waybill were labeled “perishable,” Singh later admitted that he didn’t know what he would do with the perishables and was concerned with upsetting the shipper, the forwarder and the airline. So, from the golf course, he gave the flight the green light to depart.

The weakest link

This time, Air New Zealand, ATS and the whole airfreight industry were lucky. NZ057 left Fiji on Oct. 11, 2014, and landed in Auckland without incident. Had the containers been overweight, they could have compromised the 777’s stability during takeoff. By skipping the pre-flight weigh-in, the handlers also could have missed one last chance to discover a potential bomb or other dangerous cargo that could have been sneaked on board.

Most incidents like these never see the light of day. The story of NZ057 was made public only because the internal Air New Zealand report was leaked to Australia’s Fairfax Media and reported on several New Zealand news outlets earlier this year. Although most international security agencies keep a tight lid on specific information regarding air security failures, lest terrorist organizations use the information to gain an advantage, the Fiji case is further evidence that weak links in the safety chain break occasionally.

During the ensuing internal investigation of the decision, Singh said that this was not the only time a load of cargo had left Nadi without being weighed, as ATS’s scales had malfunctioned before. (Singh was reprimanded for a safety violation but not fired, considering his 24 years of otherwise exemplary service.)

This case illustrates the tough choices cargo handlers must make every day as they load countless pallets and containers into bellyholds and freighters. While the only real method to ensure that all loads are 100 percent safe involves hand-checking every load, to do so would instantly drive the airfreight industry to a halt. Finding a balance has been the ultimate goal.

Ever since Al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen planted two bombs that were discovered in the cargo holds of two separate passenger planes on the ground, both bound for the United States in 2010, the industry has been rushing to add safety standards and beef up security at cargo handling operations. TSA developed the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP), requiring freight forwarders and shippers to be certified to pre-screen 100 percent of cargo entering the U.S. prior to arrival at the airport. In Europe, the similar ACC3 regulations require screening for any air cargo or mail carrier operating into the European Union from a “third country airport.”

This year will mark the fifth anniversary of the “wake-up call” of those two printer-cartridge bomb attempts. Are we any safer now than we were five years ago?

Building a better mousetrap

Jason Gash, director of technical sales with Smiths Detection, is quick to answer: “Yes, we’re safer now than we were five years ago,” mostly because the awareness raised by the Yemen incident has galvanized the industry.

Smiths Detection, the London-based manufacturer of screening equipment, is one of the leading suppliers of air cargo screening equipment for airlines, airports, shippers and forwarders. “With the rate of countries buying our equipment, this is definitely a safer environment today,” he added.

In the last five years, no revolutionary imaging technologies have emerged commercially to detect explosives and other materials that could bring down an aircraft, but there are still very effective ones being used with conventional technology.

X-ray scanners are still the “crème-de-la-crème” of cargo inspection, Gash said. The two main Smiths machines used specifically in the airfreight world include the Hi-Scan 145180 2is, which can screen a full pallet of cargo, and the Hi-Scan 180180 2is PRO, which can screen an entire LD-3 container. Both screeners have a cycle time of about 15 seconds for each item.

Recently, Smiths made a small improvement to its Hi-Scan units by moving the X-ray generator from the top of the machine to a spot to the side, giving the operators a better horizontal view of each pallet or container that passes through, producing a magnified image for the operator.

French manufacturer Morpho Detection also manufactures a popular palletized cargo X-ray screener, the HRX 1800, which can accommodate pallets measuring 180 x 180 cm, said Jennifer Haigh, Morpho’s strategic accounts manager for air cargo.

At Morpho, Haigh says one recent innovation is the integration of electronic trace detection (ETD), which searches for the presence of minute particles of explosive residue, into the company’s X-ray machines and into the cargo platform. Known as the Itemizer DX, the ETD unit uses a small wand that operators brush against the surface of a suspected item. The swab tip of this wand is then inserted into the unit, where it is heated until the particles are vaporized, ionized and categorized to determine whether they came from a known explosive compound.

Morpho says more than 3,000 Itemizer DXs have been deployed to airport baggage screening areas since 2010. Haigh says a new Itemizer 4DX model, designed for cargo detection operations, will be “coming very soon.”

Smiths also produces an ETD unit, called the Ionscan 500, which uses radioactive technology. However, Gash said the new Ionscan 600 units, developed last year, contain non-radioactive materials, so the 23-pound portable ETD analyzer is not subject to licensing issues with the various national nuclear regulatory agencies.

On the front lines

Scanning machines at nearly every level of the supply chain have become just another part of the airfreight landscape, but perhaps nowhere is the idea of security more tangible than at the cargo-handling facilities themselves, where the pallets are actually loaded into aircraft and trucks.

“The industry has become much more aware of the risks,” said Kelvin Ko, CEO of Cathay Pacific Services Ltd. (CPSL), operator of the Cathay Pacific Cargo Terminal at Hong Kong International Airport. “We’ve created a system that balances commerce and security and makes sure it’s the safest possible environment.”

At just over a year old, the new Cathay Pacific Terminal has not experienced any security issues, but safety was built into it from the ground up, Ko said. More than 1,000 HD security cameras have been installed in the US$6 billion facility, designed to handle 2.6 million tonnes of cargo per year. The automated storage and handling systems ensure that very few people have to enter the building, “except for a limited number of engineers,” Ko said.

The few who are allowed in the facility must be permit holders, with a scan card and photo ID. Each worker’s card is checked against the main database for each entry, with photo analysis software used to confirm the person’s identity. There are also metal detector machines for anyone going into or out of the cargo area.

The scanning machines used at Cathay’s terminal have two X-ray generators, so they can view a pallet from two angles as it passes through, providing a more detailed picture of the contents. “To some extent, it is effective,” Ko said. “We don’t know better technology out there to scan pallets, combined with highly trained operators and intelligence reports.”

“A lot of what we do is trans-shipments,” Ko said. “Many of the airlines are in the Cathay Pacific Group and use a common protocol, so the risk level for air-to-air and air-to-land transfer is OK – at least it’s manageable.” But cargo coming from a truck has far more variables to consider, and is therefore considered a higher-risk, so it is subject to U.S.-style 100 percent screening.

“Our perspective as a cargo terminal is that we are the last gate before the shipment is put on board an aircraft,” Ko said. “We like to go over and above the minimum regulations. If everyone took security really seriously, the minimum legal requirements would be sufficient. But it’s only if everyone takes it seriously.”

Getting to know you

If anyone is going to get the industry to take security more seriously, it’s probably Harald Zielinski, head of security and environmental management at Lufthansa Cargo. At Frankfurt Airport in Germany, Zielinski also has a complex web of security fences, cameras, restricted areas and other measures in place at Lufthansa’s cargo facility to keep what is sometimes called the “Fortress Frankfurt” safe.

While he – along with most security experts contacted at other facilities – declined to share many details of Lufthansa Cargo’s operation, Zielinski said that most of the carrier’s efforts boil down to a combination of X-ray screening, hand searching suspicious loads and the use of bomb-sniffing dogs to detect trace amounts of explosives. “It depends of the commodity if we decide to use the dogs,” he said. “Some types of cargo can’t be X-rayed, so we also rely on hand searches and the free-running dogs.”

A former police officer from the streets of Frankfurt, Zielinski doesn’t mince words about the status of cargo security in the EU and the rest of the world. While a significant amount of progress has been made with the CCSP in the U.S. and ACC3 compliance in the EU, he says he’s not satisfied with the amount of activity on the part of consignors who work with carriers to become certified under the various screening regulations.

“Security measures have increased, yet still account consignors have lagged behind – it’s a shame,” he said. “Participation is not as good as I would wish.”

“You have to stay in contact with big shippers,” Zielinski said. “We know their procedures, their customers’ procedures and the different screening devices they use. It’s important to know who our main customers are.”

Lothar Moehle, director of air security standardization, global air freight, at logistics firm DB Schenker, said his company often takes on the role of a consultant with customers to make sure they are in the most secure environment. Forwarders, he said, are just as concerned as airlines that an explosive device does not get into a forwarder’s warehouse. “Even when there are only local safety standards required, we always want to go by the highest possible level of security,” he said. “We want to make sure that we not only comply with security regulations, but that we are front-runners in the industry.”

Most of DB Schenker’s customers are known consignors that have worked the company for many years, “so many of the security protocols are almost routine,” Moehle said. “But for new customers, there is an enormous screening process we go through to make sure they are all legal companies and well-known in the market. We also check to see if they are shipping any strange kinds of commodities.”

“[Security] is not just about hardware,” Ko said. “Most loads go through X-ray screening, but if an X-ray operator is not properly trained, it will do no good at all.” Ko said the question to ask is, “Who are you’re your regular shippers? Are you doing a lot of profiling and risk management? Once you identify that, you can focus on the higher-risk shippers.”

The issue of knowing your shippers will only increase as e-commerce explodes around the world, and the number of new and unknown shippers rises dramatically. “For a lot of people on security staff, it’s a big challenge,” Ko said.

What’s around the corner?

Doug Brittin, chairman of the International Air Cargo Association, and formerly part of the TSA’s Air Cargo Office, has long urged a turn away from one-size-fits-all solutions to the cargo security question, and he thinks this is the way the industry is heading in the near future (see page XX).

“We need a move away from blanket prescriptive measures about security and towards a risk-based approach, on the part of the airlines, forwarders and handlers,” he said.

Over the next 10 years, “the emphasis on security will move closer and closer to the airport,” Zielinski predicted. “Rather than rely on someone else to screen the cargo from far away, it’s better to do it closer to the airport.” Air carriers and handlers, he said, will develop “a very close partnership with forwarders, based on the actual risk situation. We need very close cooperation.”

Lufthansa Cargo is currently building a billion-dollar new cargo logistics facility at Frankfurt as part of its “Lufthansa Cargo 2020 plan.” The facility, scheduled to open in 2018, will have “the best-secured warehouse, no doubt,” Zielinski said, plus the latest in screening equipment – which he, of course, couldn’t comment on. “No cargo will enter or leave the facility until it is 100 percent screened,” he finally offered.

On the technology side, Morpho’s Haigh said there are some promising imaging techniques that have not yet hit the cargo market, such as “CT X-ray” screening, using computed tomography imaging commonly used in health care. However, she realizes there is a limit to how many expensive machines can fit into crowded cargo facilities. “The more space you take up with equipment is just more space taken away from future cargo,” she added.

Zielinski offered a challenge to young, technology-oriented college students today to step up and contribute to the fight against terrorism. “Without a doubt, we would love to have more serious development of equipment,” he said. “There’s been nothing really new for many years, so we invite those with a serious new device to step forward.”

“We stay on high alert,” said Ko of CPSL. “While security is improved, the bad guys have also stepped up. You always have to examine risks and mitigate them proactively. The whole industry has the same mentality – it just takes the weakest link to break it.”

“There are always new ideas being developed by those who I like to call the ‘Dark Side,’” Zielinski agreed. “The Dark Side never sleeps.”


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