The air freight industry, which according to IATA carries 35 per cent of the world’s traded goods, has been battling in the wake of the Yemen bomb plot to avoid draconian restrictions that might throttle the flow of cargo.
Fearing the introduction of mandatory scanning of all consignments for explosives, industry bodies have mounted a concerted effort to head off a clamp down by the authorities. Freight experts have warned that express air delivery could come to halt if 100 per cent scanning was introduced.
Peter Quantrill, director general of the British International Freight Association, warned against a knee-jerk reaction. “Success in securing the supply chain relies less on new methods and technology than it does on greater co-operation and information sharing among supply chain parties and between the public and private sectors,” he asserted.
Quantrill and others point to the fact that it was intelligence gathering and sharing of information that foiled the Yemen plot rather than high tech intervention.
At the time of writing it was still far from clear how far governments are prepared to go to thwart terrorists such as those in Yemen from using air cargo to deliver bombs.
The US Transport Security Agency (TSA) was quick to ban flights from Yemen and Somalia. The US, along with several other countries, also announced that air passengers could no longer carry toner cartridges in their hand luggage.
And freight firms were still digesting the implications of a ban on elevated risk cargos such as those consisting of personal effects, shipments paid for in cash and consignments from shippers with no billing address.
But none of these measures amounts to the compulsory inspection regime covering all cargo that the industry fears. This year steps to strengthen security were already in hand on both sides of the Atlantic.
In August, the US introduced regulations requiring all cargo loaded onto passenger planes to be checked for explosives using X-Rays and other detectors. Large consignments on pallets must be broken down into smaller items.
Europeans have been working on the known consignor approach: a system in which the bona fides and security procedures of consignors have to be verified before their cargo is deemed safe to carry.
The EU Framework Regulation 300/2008 came into effect at the end of April. It consists of three main elements: independent validation of consignors, a mandatory cargo database including known and unknown shippers, and a distinction between direct and transit cargo.
The new regulation has been criticised for allowing freight forwarders already recognised as known consignors a three year moratorium before they have to submit to validation. Key European countries, including Germany, do not yet have a system for validating consignors in place.
“Although security with the new regulations will be no worse than at present, it must be of concern if it is going to take another three years before one can say with any confidence that all freight is been adequately secured and safeguarded,” said Andrew Traill, policy director of the European Shippers Council.
The UK is one European country that does have an inspection regime. Consignors pay a £400 fee to have their physical security measures, staff procedures and transport arrangements checked out.
The issue of scanning is already a political hot potato. Policymakers and freight organisations have been arguing over compulsory scanning of sea containers for some years. Proposals to introduce full scanning of containers in 2012 have been postponed for two years at least.
Similarly, efforts to introduce scanning of air cargo have come to nothing in the past. Six years ago the TSA estimated that it would cost $650m per year to inspect every piece of air cargo which would place undue hardship on the affected stakeholders.
Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s chief executive officer, argues that airport screening cannot be a first line of defence; only a complement to intelligence and supply chain solutions.
“Currently, there is no government-certified technology to screen standard size pallets and large items. There is some promising technology but it is taking far too long to move from the laboratory to the airport. We must speed up the process,” he points out.
With some 80 per cent of cargo already coming from known shippers, measures to secure the supply chain rather than just focusing on airport scanning would seem to make sense on both security and economic grounds.
However, it is inconceivable that the latest security scare will not hasten changes already in the pipeline and result in the imposition of new obligations. The question is how much will they cost.
Policymakers must achieve a delicate balancing act if they are to protect their citizens without damaging the economic activity on which they depend so much during a time of recession.