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

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to four terms as President of the United States, but he never got the chance to see the finish line of his last administration – or glimpse his true legacy. While his untimely death a month before the fall of Nazi Germany precluded witnessing it, the United States and its Allied Forces, led by his committed coalition, prevailed in World War II by the summer of 1945. His agenda for peace promised Americans an economic bill of rights, including a job, education and healthcare that ultimately resulted in one of the biggest economic expansions ever, not to mention a still-unsurpassed popularity rating at the time of his passing.

As President Obama leaves office, only history will tell if his tenure will result in the type of popularity achieved by FDR. From an air cargo security standpoint, many of his security policies have kept flights and passengers safe. But, regrettably, one initiative, the Air Cargo Advanced Screening (ACAS) program, is unlikely to see its completion as this President leaves office come January. But there is still time to make significant progress for smooth implementation in the administration to be decided this month.

ACAS is an initiative allowing the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to receive advanced security filing cargo data as a means to target cargo shipments inbound to the United States that may be high-risk and require additional screening. The program was conceived in October 2010, when authorities discovered two U.S.-bound packages from Yemen containing bombs, designed to detonate in midair over Chicago, and attributed the plot to terrorists in the Arabian Peninsula. Since then, the ACAS project has been in a pilot stage that has, by industry calculation, screened more than 300 million shipments without detecting any threats to aviation. This amount is good progress, but we still have a way to go before reaching the finish line.

Recently, industry stakeholders, including the Airforwarders Association, were called to a meeting at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to provide ideas on how the program could be fully implemented by the start of the new administration or shortly after that. Apparently, the U.S. Administrative Procedures Act requires that regulations of this magnitude go through a “notice of proposed rulemaking” that includes an exhaustive financial impact and cost/benefit review. This process has created challenges for the government in bringing the rule to fruition.

The voluntary pilot ACAS program has been long in duration, allowing the government to achieve an immediate security benefit while working many of the operational issues out with industry, but now is the time to codify lessons learned as soon as possible. It’s also time to resolve industry issues that should be addressed before the regulation takes effect.

The primary forwarder concern is the bonding requirement and potentially costly penalty scheme they may face for data accuracy errors when accessing CBP’s communication channel. While larger forwarders may not see this as a challenge, smaller ones may choose not to file their ACAS data, relying on carriers to perform the task. Later data submission at the airport offsets the goal of attracting significant amounts of shipment information early in the shipping process for effective targeting, and thereby poses a risk of operational delays and, potentially, the establishment of earlier cargo tender times. Instead of an unnecessary and costly bonding requirement, perhaps leveraging trusted entity status – such as “authorized economic operator” (AEO) or regulated agent – in the origin country could be a solution.

Other forwarding- and carrier-related operational issues include the challenging need for a contact, available 24/7, especially in cities where the forwarder does not have an actual presence and, most important, how screening referrals will work in conjunction with TSA’s mutual recognition regime. These and other operational issues must be tested and resolved through the pilot program before moving forward. Unless these questions are thoroughly vetted and resolved in an operationally feasible manner, the result will likely involve skyrocketing costs and significant operational disruption – not only for forwarders but airline partners as well.

Although we have serious reservations about the need for additional security layers, given those already in place, ACAS is a result of a Presidential mandate and will soon be the law of the land.

As the industry works with the government in a co-creative fashion to solve the operational questions, the administration must step in by expediting the rulemaking process to the maximum extent before leaving office. The required financial impact study by the Office of Management and Budget should consider that the cost of ACAS, unlike most proposed regulations, is not about quantifying dollars but the qualitative benefit of keeping cargo, our skies and passengers safe. Making this consideration the foundation of the ACAS regulation will implement the program faster and surely enhance the legacy of this President for years to come… but the clock is ticking.

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