Center for American Progress

Air Cargo by the Numbers: Keeping Bombs Off Planes

Air Cargo by the Numbers: Keeping Bombs Off Planes

With heavy air traffic over the July 4th holiday and recent bomb scares in London, we’re taking a by-the-numbers look at strengthening air cargo.

Everyone packing their toiletries in a Ziploc bag this morning before jetting off for a quick Independence Day vacation can attest to the fact that screening measures are growing ever-stricter for airline passengers, particularly this week with tensions still high over London’s recent bomb scares. But there’s another side of aviation security that often gets neglected: air cargo travels along on a substantial proportion of passenger flights, but it does not get the same level of scrutiny as the people and baggage traveling on the same airplane.

Congress will have the opportunity to change this when conferees meet in the coming weeks to finalize legislation implementing various recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, including stronger air cargo security.

Terrorists have repeatedly attempted to plant bombs in cargo shipments on airliners headed to the United States, and there’s an unacceptably high chance of success if they try it again. Though air cargo security has improved markedly in the last five years, as a recent CAP report explains, it’s still not good enough.

Here’s a by-the-numbers look at air cargo security and why it must be strengthened.

$5 billion
: Money the TSA will spend this year on securing passengers and their checked and carry-on baggage.

$55 million: Money the TSA will spend on securing the air cargo that travel on the same airplane.


50,000: Tons of cargo flown every day within the United States.

One-third: Amount of the global air cargo flow that is flown on passenger flights. The remaining amount is carried on board all-cargo aircraft flown by companies such as FedEx and UPS.

300: Number of cargo security agents focused on air cargo full-time.

1: Percentage of the TSA workforce these agents represent.


1.5 million: Number of shippers that are left to largely police themselves as a result.

3: Number of times the management of the TSA’s air cargo mission was reorganized between February 2005 and September 2006—once every six months.

220: Ranking of the TSA, out of 222, in “workplace favorability”: the agency has suffered from significant leadership turnover and low employee morale.

Congress should pass legislation requiring that more air cargo is inspected, not just administratively screened as it is now. The TSA’s goal should be 100 percent inspection of air cargo. At the same time, congressional conferees must be realistic. Improving air cargo security will take more time and money than currently envisioned. Nonetheless, significant progress can be made in the near term if TSA is given a clear mandate and appropriate resources.

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