Ever since the 9/11 Commission mandated that the U.S. Transportation Security Administration screen 100 percent of all cargo on passenger flights, the air cargo industry has worked diligently to meet the government’s security objectives by spreading the screening responsibility down the supply chain.

As an example of what has been done, in the wake of the 9/11 Commission Act that was passed by Congress in 2007, TSA created the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP), which permitted certified freight companies to screen cargo away from the airport. The legislation also allowed screening to be performed through a variety of methods including physical inspection, X-ray and explosive trace detection technology. Use of specially trained dogs was also deemed as an acceptable way to screen air cargo, but TSA has permitted only the use of its own dogs, and only at the airport, thereby denying forwarders and Certified Cargo Screening Facilities the ability to own and use dogs in their own cargo-screening processes.

Technology suited for screening is highly effective and continues to evolve with manufacturers frequently introducing new forms of machinery accepted by TSA and purchased by CCSP screeners. But in addition to its cost and recertification requirements, the continuing challenge continues to be lack of TSA-approved devices capable of screening full pallets containing multiple commodities. This means that boxes need to be individually scanned before being consolidated onto shipping pallets. The process is time-consuming and labor-intensive for those doing the screening.

In May 2011, the University of California School of Policy, Planning and Development conducted a research analysis of TSA’s explosive detection canines. The study concluded that dogs are the most cost-effective option among a range of explosive-screening methods, some of which can cost twice as much as canine screening over a ten-year period. The study also concluded that privately trained and certified canines are capable of being used as a primary screening method on a wide scale.

In 2011, TSA ran a pilot program to test the feasibility of implementing a third-party private explosive detection canine program that would make explosive detection dogs available to screen all cargo before it goes on passenger and all-cargo aircraft. Objectives included a determination of the industry’s capability to use private canines to screen air cargo in accordance with TSA screening requirements, identification of standards for program implementation and an assessment of TSA resources to implement the program.

The TSA canine pilot program provided all the information TSA needed to improve and implement a third-party solution. Unfortunately, the annual cost for this has been pegged at US$5 million (3.6 million euros), and accordingly the agency seems to have placed the private dog idea on the shelf, assuming its expense outweighs industry demand.

I am not so sure they have it right. That cost estimate likely figures that each forwarder would have to purchase, shelter, care for and feed their pooches. But if this were allowed to go forward, I suspect there would emerge a viable pooled solution with forwarders in specific geographic locations banding together to support a mobile provider capable of bringing the canine to each facility one or more times a day. The shared cost and collective savings offered to the forwarders, and the upside screening revenue potential, would make this a worthwhile business investment, provided TSA gives its permission.

Lest you think that canine screening is a static, old school screening option, it appears that dogs are figuring into one of the more interesting technologies to come down the pike. There are licensed U.S. companies training detection canines and in Europe, a process called Remote Air Sampling for Canine Olfaction, which can vastly increase the amount of cargo that a single dog can screen in a brief period of time, has shown promising results in France and the UK. Known as REST or RASCO, the technique involves having canines sniff air samples collected in special filters from cargo, thereby saving the dog from having to visit each piece.

Regardless of the method used, private canines can play a vital role in providing an effective tool in the cargo-screening chest. TSA-owned canines are limited in number, busy at airport passenger terminals and are shared with airline freight facilities as time and availability permit.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently reported that the delay in implementing privately-owned dogs within the Certified Cargo Screening Program is leading to a missed opportunity to expand canine resources, create private sector jobs and leverage the private sector toward better air cargo security. TSA needs to finalize its efforts to develop a certification program for private companies to enable them to use their own canines, certified to TSA standards, to meet federal air cargo screening mandates. Leveraging private sector resources will introduce much-needed additional canines into the cargo screening system.

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