Back in 2009, the Air Transport Association of America (ATA) sent a letter to air cargo shippers reminding them about the congressionally-mandated August 2010 deadline for 100 percent screening of all cargo on passenger planes.
Now, a new government report says the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is going to have trouble meeting that mandate.
Researchers at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that even though TSA has made progress, it still faces considerable challenges in developing and implementing a system to screen 100 percent of domestic cargo by August.
In its review, the GAO does recognize several areas where TSA has made great strides. For instance, the agency has:
increased required domestic cargo screening levels from 50 percent in February 2009 to 75 percent in May 2010.
increased the amount of cargo subject to screening by eliminating many domestic screening exemptions,
created a voluntary program to allow screening to take place at various points in the air cargo supply chain,
conducted outreach to familiarize industry stakeholders with screening requirements, and
tested air cargo screening technologies.
However, there are also significant gaps:
Shipper participation in the voluntary screening program has been lower than targeted by TSA.
TSA has not completed a staffing study to determine the number of inspectors needed to oversee the screening program.
TSA has not approved a technology to screen large pallets or containers of cargo.
Currently, TSA does not verify the self-reported data submitted by screening participants.
As a result of its review, the GAO made a handful of recommendations, suggesting, for example, that TSA establish milestones for a staffing study and develop a contingency plan for screening the billions of pounds of cargo transported on US passenger flights each year.
The recommendation for a contingency plan, in particular, has sparked debate. On the one hand, the GAO believes that without a contingency plan the flow of commerce will be disrupted. On the other, TSA disagrees with this assessment and says there is no feasible contingency plan that can be implemented that will not compromise security or create disparities in the availability of screening resources. According to TSA, several alternatives are already available and are currently being exercised by the industry.
With only a few weeks remaining to resolve these differences, it seems that shippers, and the companies that depend on them, need to keep a watchful eye on the discussion and perhaps make their own contingency plans in order to prevent supply chain disruptions this fall.