Mail bombs highlight flaws in systems for screening air freight

LONDON — The discovery of US-bound mail bombs on cargo planes in England and Dubai reveals the danger posed by air shipping, which is governed by a patchwork of inconsistent controls that make packages a potential threat even to passenger jets, specialists said yesterday.

Most countries require packages on passenger flights by international shipping companies to go through at least one security check. But security protocols vary widely around the world. Experts cautioned that cargo, even when loaded onto passenger planes, is sometimes lightly inspected or completely unexamined, particularly when it comes from countries without well-developed aviation security.

The fact that at least two packages containing explosives could be placed on cargo-only flights to England and Dubai, one in a FedEx shipment from Yemen, was a dramatic example of the risks, but the dangers have been obvious for years, analysts said. Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May said the device discovered early Friday morning at England’s East Midlands Airport was potentially eplosive and could have been used to bring down a plane.

May said Britain has banned the movement of all unaccompanied air freight originating from Yemen. France’s civil aviation authority also suspended air freight from Yemen.

About 60 percent of all cargo coming into the United States is on passenger planes. About 40 percent is on cargo planes, according to Brandon Fried, a cargo security specialist and executive director of the Airforwarders Association.

One particular vulnerability in the system: Trusted companies that regularly do business with freight shippers are allowed to ship parcels as “secure’’ cargo that is not automatically subjected to further checks.

Even where rules are tight on paper, enforcement can be lax. A US government team that visited cargo sites around the world last year found a wide range of glaring defects, said John Shingleton, managing director of Handy Shipping Guide, an industry information service.

About 50,000 tons of cargo is shipped by air within the United States every day, according to the Transportation Security Administration. About 25 percent of that is shipped by passenger airlines. Mike Boyd, who heads an aviation industry consulting firm in Colorado, said cargo is often put onboard passenger flights at the last minute, similar to passengers flying on standby.

Inside the United States, new rules that took effect in August require that every piece of cargo be checked for explosives. Cargo is increasingly screened by X-ray machines and handheld wands — the TSA has approved dozens of new machines in the past two years that can detect traces of explosive materials.

Cargo that travels through airports in countries with high threat levels and advanced security systems is often safer. The system at London’s busy Heathrow Airport is relatively effective because cargo is held for 24 hours, giving authorities time to check it properly, according to Shingleton.

Still, since August, US aviation officials have been pressing the EU to require the X-raying of every package placed on passenger planes, but they have met resistance because of the cost and logistics involved in screening such a huge amount of material, aviation safety consultant Chris Yates said.

“Is it possible one of these devices could get on passenger jets?’’ Yates said. “I’m not convinced it could on flights between London and the States, but it could get on from less secure parts of the world, including the Middle East. If you talk to anybody senior at airports, they will tell you freight is the weak link in the chain.’’

“Security in the UK is pretty good, the US is not bad, but aviation is a global business and we need effective regimes around the globe,’’ he said. “Cargo travels on both cargo-only and on combi-aircraft, which have passengers and cargo, and cargo is not subject to the same screening requirements as passengers’ baggage.’’ 

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