Center for American Progress

Keeping Bombs Off Planes: Securing Air Cargo, Aviation’s Soft Underbelly

Keeping Bombs Off Planes: Securing Air Cargo, Aviation’s Soft Underbelly

P.J. Crowley and Bruce R. Butterworth release a new report outlining how Congress can make America safer by securing air cargo.

Read the full report (PDF)

At a recent hearing at Guantanamo, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad took responsi­bility for the so called Bojinka plot, a plan to use terrorists posing as passengers to blow up a dozen 747s simultaneously in 1995. Less well known is what the 9/11 mastermind’s nephew, Ramzi Yousef (and the operational director of Bojinka) did when this first plot was foiled. He tried twice to place bombs in cargo shipments on airliners bound for the United States before he was arrested. If a terrorist attempts such a plot again, there is an unacceptably high chance of success. Why? Because most cargo that flies on passenger flights receives far less scrutiny than the people and bag­gage traveling on the same airplane.

Due to hard work by the Transportation Security Administration’s cargo security pro­fessionals, air cargo security is better than it was five years ago, but not yet good enough. Congress, following up on the outstanding recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, is considering how to strengthen air cargo security. How effective new measures will be, however, hinges on this question: Should the Transportation Security Administration “screen” or “inspect” air cargo?

The difference may appear semantic, but in fact it is critical. To inspect air cargo is to examine it physically by various means, item by item, to ensure that it does not contain a bomb. Properly done, inspection gives a high level of confidence that no bomb is present. In contrast, to screen cargo is to administratively review cargo data and then inspect only a fraction of the cargo itself.

Unsecured air cargo gives terrorists an opportunity to bring down a U.S. airliner with­out having to board it or cross a border. Devising a bomb with a timer for a commercial shipment on a U.S.-bound passenger flight is well within the capabilities of an average engineering student.

In fact, in the 1988 Pan Am 103 tragedy over Lockerbie, Scotland, the bomb success­fully detonated on the third successive flight, which would be required to get a bomb on an airliner flying either to and within the United States. Yet this year, the Transporta­tion Security Administration, or TSA, will spend close to $5 billion securing passengers and their checked and carry-on baggage—but only $55 million on the air cargo that can fly on the same airplane.

What’s worse, only 300 cargo security agents are focused on air cargo full-time, less than one percent of the TSA work­force.  This forces the agency to allow the 1.5 million known shippers, 3,800 freight forwarders (with 10,000 branches), and 300 air carriers that form the air cargo supply chain to largely police themselves.

It is obviously impossible for TSA to effectively monitor the tens of millions of employees in this supply chain, which is why Congress’ legislative choice of words is significant. A Senate bill passed in March 2007 would require the TSA to “screen” all domestic air cargo carried on passenger aircraft within three years. A comparable House measure, approved in its first 100 hours in January, would man­date that TSA “inspect” such shipments.

The right answer is actually in between the two, but getting it right will require a broader focus, take longer and cost more than Congress currently envisions.

Administrative screening can be easily circumvented. Shipping documents are notoriously incomplete and not a sound guide for targeted inspections based on risk. With millions of shipping employees in the supply chain, there is a substantial opportunity for jihadists with no known links to terror networks to find jobs. Widespread smuggling and cargo theft raises questions about whether industry will sufficiently comply with even basic security measures.

A security system anchored by the inspec­tion of as much air cargo as possible will be harder to defeat. Most air cargo is loose, or “break bulk” in shipping par­lance, which means it can be inspected using existing capabilities. Virtually all cargo flown from smaller airports is already inspected. With appropriate resources, TSA could establish addi­tional inspection facilities at the roughly 45 larger airports that handle 95 percent of all domestic cargo.

Each TSA inspection point would have the full range of inspection capabili­ties; the configuration would vary from airport to airport depending on the span of operations and type of commodities typically handled. A pilot program test­ing such a model is currently underway at San Francisco International Airport and will soon begin at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

But even if 100 percent inspection is the right goal, there are several problems with Congress’ emerging approach. It cannot be achieved within three years. Its emphasis is on the wrong cargo. And TSA lacks the existing resources to do it.

A small but significant volume of air cargo arrives at the airport in shipping contain­ers or on pallets, already “built-up” in ship­ping vernacular. No technology currently exists to effectively inspect cargo shrink-wrapped on four-foot square pallets, large cargo containers (also known as unit load­ing devices or ULDs), or “cookie sheets” (metal sheets on which cargo is stacked to the size of a ULD) for the small quanti­ties of explosives that can bring down an airliner. A labor-intensive effort to break down, inspect, and reassemble shipments is impractical as a standard practice.

That’s why Congress needs to allow enough program flexibility for TSA to clear some cargo for flight not through inspection, but through alternative procedures that provide the same effec­tive level of security. Specifically, some built-up cargo will have to be “certified,” based on much stronger security “up stream” all the way to the manufacturing or production site; diverted to planes that fly only cargo; or placed in large cham­bers that simulate some or all of the flight itself, as the Israelis do.

Another problem: The emerging legisla­tion focuses on domestic air cargo only, as does TSA’s current strategy. However, international cargo arriving in the U.S. on all-cargo flights, and to a lesser extent on foreign airline flights, carries consider­ably greater risk. As with Pan Am 103, the best opportunity to attack a U.S.-flagged airliner may be before its arrival in the United States, which underscores the need to perform cargo inspections overseas, not just domestically.

Yet, today, cargo that originates overseas can be transferred to a domestic pas­senger airliner without being inspected. Given last summer’s plot to destroy flights between Britain and the U.S., this should not be allowed to happen.

Contrary to stated concerns by govern­ment and industry officials, improved air cargo security will not create unmanage­able system disruption or economic hard­ship. The overall economy is strong and the airline industry has recovered from the shock of 9/11.10  But the private sector has a right to expect the government to have the necessary resources and political support to do what needs to be done.

Unfortunately, TSA in its first five years of existence has been caught between competing political philosophies of more active and smaller government. Under-funded relative to its mission, TSA has too often been forced to rob Peter to pay Paul—for example, by cutting research on explosives detection to pay employee salaries. Its screener labor force has been arbitrarily capped for ideological reasons unrelated to its mission requirements.11  The cargo security function within TSA has been an orphan and was reorganized three times in an 18-month period.12

TSA professional staff has done a lot to improve air cargo security on a shoe­string budget, but TSA’s leadership seems reluctant to take on additional respon­sibility and to battle the White House for the resources it needs to succeed. To understand exactly what TSA should be doing almost six years after 9/11, the Center for American Progress undertook a six-month review of the air cargo sys­tem, assisted by a small team of experts and by broad consultations with industry and government officials.

Our analysis focuses on the threat to passenger air travel (shipments flown on all-cargo aircraft are assessed to be a lesser concern and not directly addressed in this paper) and evaluates what is necessary given the threat. Specifically, we examined what can be done without disrupting the air cargo supply chain, and what a reason­able security regime would cost.

Given renewed interest in air cargo secu­rity, what should be done now?

Congress should pass legislation that more air cargo be inspected, not just administratively screened. TSA should strongly embrace the vision of 100 percent inspection and use it to drive future program planning and execution.

Summary of Major Findings

First, Congress should pass legislation that more air cargo be inspected, not be just administratively screened. TSA should strongly embrace the vision of 100 percent inspection and use it to drive future program planning and execution. Congress, however, should not set a counterproductive deadline. While considerable progress can be attained within three years, the capability to inspect all air cargo will take up to 10 years to achieve.

Second, TSA should assume direct responsibility for inspections and not delegate the job to the private sector. TSA should more aggressively adapt the flow of air cargo at airports to fit security requirements. By establishing government-run inspection facilities at major airports, TSA can at least double the volume of cargo inspected within three years using existing inspection technologies and procedures.

Third, solutions must be international, not just domestic. The United States should encourage adoption of stronger global air cargo security standards through bilateral agreements and also through appropriate international bodies. The objective should be to increase inspections (or the limited use of strong alternatives to inspections) overseas as it has in other transportation sectors. In the meantime, all uninspected international air cargo arriving in the United States and scheduled to be transferred to domestic passenger flights should be inspected first, with particular emphasis on shipments arriving on all-cargo aircraft.

Fourth, Congress should establish a separate budget line for air cargo security and beginning in fiscal year 2008 provide up to $600 million per year for more extensive operations, additional facility and equipment needs and roughly 4,000 more personnel. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Laboratory in Atlantic City, N.J., should receive dedicated and sustained funding to develop the means to fill remaining inspection gaps and research next generation explosive detection technologies.

On September 11, the United States suffered a “failure of imagination.”14 When it comes to closing the remaining major vulnerability within aviation security before it can be exploited by terrorist networks, what the United States cannot afford is a failure of action.

To speak with P.J. Crowley or Bruce R. Butterworth, contact:

For TV, Sean Gibbons, Director of Media Strategy
202.682.1611 or [email protected]
For radio, Theo LeCompte, Media Strategy Manager
202.741.6268 or [email protected]
For print, John Neurohr, Press Assistant
202.481.8182 or [email protected]
For web, Erin Lindsay,OnlineMarketing Manager
202.741.6397 or [email protected]


The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.