Forwarders’ Forum: A letter to the Vice Admiral

President Obama recently nominated Coast Guard Vice Admiral Peter Neffenger to lead the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Vice Admiral Neffenger brings to TSA three decades of service as a Coast Guard officer and appears to have the skills, experience and abilities to lead the TSA in its risk-based mission to counter the ever-evolving terrorist threat to transportation.

TSA has gone without a permanent leader for almost five months since John Pistole departed to be the president of Anderson University in Indiana. While the agency has been in capable hands under the direction of acting administrator Mel Carraway, having a nominated and confirmed administrator allows for a more politically decisive path in achieving the necessary objectives in protecting the transportation system.

Should Vice Admiral Neffenger reach Senate confirmation and take the helm, one of the first items on his desk will be this letter from the airfreight forwarding industry:

Dear Vice Admiral Neffenger:

The air cargo sector in our country represents one of the fastest and most efficient methods of transporting goods between markets worldwide. Thanks to the hard work of stakeholder partners, including airlines, trucking companies and freight forwarders, our industry has successfully implemented the TSA risk-based approach to air cargo security that remains a shining example of what can be achieved when the private sector and government work together.

In recent years, with regard to air cargo oversight, TSA seems to have lost its focus, and the result has been a growing culture of fragmented policy implementation and confusion. The freight forwarding industry sees this daily, where 500 TSA air cargo inspectors – each working hard to carry out agency policy – lack definitive direction from headquarters on vital aspects of our security program. Letters of investigation initiated by inaccurate policy interpretation create confusion while burdening the forwarding community with human capital and legal defense costs.

The Airforwarders Association membership consists of many different-sized companies and business models. Several of these firms report that, despite flawless past records, their TSA agent inspection visits through April surpassed all of those experienced in 2014. Each visit results in information requests taking hours to fulfill, using staff needed for otherwise important business tasks. As an industry, we would like to better understand the reason behind this increase and, in the process, work with TSA to restore such visits to a more reasonable and less resource consuming level. Perhaps the onset of this dysfunction began two years ago during a massive TSA reorganization, where the air cargo division, once an independent entity within TSA, lost its identity and was absorbed into the agency’s aviation division. People with significant air-cargo-related knowledge either left TSA or were moved to other sectors. They were replaced by people who lack the requisite experience their predecessors had in dealing with our industry.

Since the reorganization and resulting identity shift, air cargo decisions are made within the confines of policy, legal and enforcement silos, where communication between each is strained. The result is a fractured policy interpretation and an environment characterized by delayed programs and indecisiveness.

An example of this dysfunctional shift is the long-anticipated release of the revised Indirect Air Carrier Security Program. TSA promised that we would see it last fall but, as of this writing, the program still has not been released. Our industry provided important input to the TSA on many aspects of the anticipated program, and we are anxious to see the agency use the program to create an easier operational environment that is reflective of current realities while maintaining the highest levels of safety.

Also, last year Airforwarders Association Chairman Chris Connell testified on Capitol Hill about TSA overseeing a private canine cargo-screening pilot that would be overseen by TSA but funded by industry. We believe that this additional screening method will not only speed up the process but also address certain screening challenges unmet by existing technology. Unfortunately, almost a year later, TSA still has not responded to our request.

We need to work collaboratively in restoring an environment that alleviates the “gotcha” mentality within the TSA air cargo inspector ranks. This means a stop to enforcement over minor perceived infractions and more emphasis on overall efficiency. Just as the TSA has developed its “riskbased approach” to security, shifting TSA from a one-sizefits- all approach to security based on risk has empowered the agency and our industry to become a model of efficiency worldwide. We urge the agency to work harder to help us realize the enormous potential of translating this approach into vibrant and competitive supply chains for American industry and consumers.

Finally, we would like to invite you and your newly appointed staff to experience a “week in the life” of a freight forwarder. The AfA would be delighted to arrange for our members to open their businesses to you for this purpose, so that you can experience, first-hand, the operational impact of regulations and enforcement initiatives concerning our business.

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