Government shutdown? We’ve got you covered

Brandon Fried, executive director of the Air Forwarders Association

The U.S. government shutdown that occurred at the start of this year affected more than 800,000 federal workers throughout the country and lasted longer than any other in history. Workers at the U.S. Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), serving as the primary guardians of our nation’s aviation security system, were forced to work without pay while the shutdown persisted, and, as a result, many were pushed to search for new jobs that could offer some financial relief.

Now that extended government closings may become commonplace in the United States, action must be taken so that next time the country is prepared for everything a shutdown entails. It’s time for the U.S. Congress to ensure that the country can handle a similar situation in the future – and they can take a lesson in preparedness from the air cargo industry.

Although many agencies were affected by the furloughs, the ones related to freight transportation, including TSA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), were the most impactful to our industry. Fortunately, most of the essential frontline personnel from these agencies were on the job, keeping us safe despite the personal financial hardship suffered and a lack of available management to supervise their activity.

While our nation’s aviation safety suffered no catastrophic impairment or significant disruptions, many believe a lack of managerial oversight of FAA personnel and absent TSA supervisors within the various agency headquarters may have pushed the margins. As for the air cargo and freight forwarding industries, however, it was business as usual, thanks to hard work completed years ago that finally paid off.

More than a decade ago, influential members of our industry recognized a need for, and substantial benefit of, third-party involvement in the screening process. As a result, a provision was included in “The Implementing the Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007,” which allowed the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP) to allow physical screening of cargo by freight forwarders and other private entities away from the airport. This initiative essentially certified qualified industry participants to perform the required screening functions, under TSA authority, and provide oversight to search cargo for explosives before transport on passenger flights. The program has flourished and continues to serve as a model example of government and industry creatively working together in addressing the security challenge.

A lack of managerial oversight during the shutdown must not be taken lightly, as frontline employees, working under their auspices, lacked policy oversight essential to their jobs. One glaring example was the implementation of the TSA Third Party Canine Program, which was introduced just two days before the government work stoppage (see our feature on the canine program, “A Nose For Cargo,” in the March 2019 issue).

Only a handful of program users and providers had received certification and operating authority, and operational questions remained unanswered, causing many participants to simply delay the use of commercial dogs in screening their cargo. Similar challenges existed at CBP, where lingering import classification questions created holds on freight shipments and costly detention and demurrage of cargo, which caused even more expense to beneficial cargo owners.

In the wake of the recent shutdown, and as the dust has settled from the resulting challenges, lawmakers have taken action to prevent similar situations in the future. Two significant legislative initiatives are now underway in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, created to avoid similar financial starvation of TSA and FAA.

Both bills call for mandating that passenger aviation security fees are used to help finance the cost of aviation security screening. In 2013, Congress diverted one-third of revenue collected from passenger security fees to pay for unrelated government spending. In 2019, US$1.36 billion will be redirected away from aviation security, and unless stopped, $19 billion will have been hijacked by 2027.

This diversion of funds sanctioned by Congress has depleted the TSA’s financial resources, rendering the agency incapable of paying its employees during the recent furlough. Hopefully, passage of this legislation will prevent a recurrence and allow all of its workers, including managerial leadership essential to the agency’s operations, to have guaranteed funding. This bipartisan legislation would keep passengers and freight moving safely and securely during another shutdown. As Congress allowed for industry screening years ago, doing the necessary work now will serve to prepare us well into the future.

Since Congress may not fully understand our industry, a new “Air Cargo Caucus” was formed recently to recognize the vital contributions our business brings to our economy. The group will allow Congress to specialize on issues impacting air carriers, enable collaboration between members, and directly inform lawmakers about the pressing needs in our industry. Future activity will include issue briefings and Congressional site visits to facilities throughout the country.

Air cargo security has seen the benefits of government and industry collaboration in the past, but the educational process never stops. Elected Representatives need to know more about our industry and its importance to the United States. Most of all, they must begin to realize that, despite political differences, aviation security should not hinge on budget battles within Congress.

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