WASHINGTON – Almost two years since the deadly Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, airlines are still not inspecting all the cargo shipped on passenger planes, and two lawmakers are demanding to know why.
"While TSA employees are required to examine the booties on a baby's feet, no one is inspecting the boxes destined for the belly of a Boeing," said Rep. Edward Markey (search), D-Mass. "Is there any question where a bomb is likely to be placed?"
Markey and Rep. Christopher Shays (search), R-Conn., successfully co-sponsored an amendment in June to the $29.4 billion Homeland Security Department budget for fiscal year 2004 that demands the Transportation Security Administration (search) map out a plan for full inspections of all cargo on passenger planes.
The amendment forces Congress to divert federal funds away from any TSA cargo security plan that does not incorporate full screening of air cargo by the end of 2003. The 2004 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
During debate of the measure, Shays voiced bewilderment that current inspections don't already require cargo screening.
"The bottom line is, as long as cargo and baggage screening is incomplete, there are gaps in aviation security that are unacceptable," he said.
Homeland Security Department (search) officials accuse the congressmen of gross misrepresentation. They say TSA has forced tough measures on the airlines for air cargo shipments on passenger planes, but the technology to screen large freight shipments isn't available yet.
"We've been working on it every day since Sept. 11. As with other technology, they want science and ingenuity to move faster than it can," said TSA spokesman Brian Turmail. "There is no way to viably screen air cargo today. Do we just sit on our hands? Of course not."
Turmail said all cargo moved on passenger planes – about 22 percent of all cargo delivered through the air – must be shipped by companies that have more than one year's history with the airline. Shippers participating in the "known shipper" program are "rigorously audited," Turmail said, adding that cargo over a certain weight is prohibited on passenger flights.
Meanwhile, canines are used to inspect the mail and other packages, a measure that is growing, he said.
Cargo that does not fit the criteria for passenger planes goes on all-cargo flights, which have less stringent standards, but are also forced to comply with TSA regulations, many of which aren't disclosed because of security, officials said. Cargo carriers have agreed to implement their own "known shipper" programs as well, and the bigger shipping companies have incorporated elaborate systems for tracking packages.
"We are tremendously secure," said Kristin Kraus, spokeswoman for shipping giant FedEx Corporation (search). "Forever, security has been paramount to us.
"We know where a package is at all times, who dropped it off, who signed for it, we collect a tremendous amount of data. We are constantly adding new technology," Kraus said.
But while FedEx transports 5.3 million packages a day, it doesn't account for all cargo shipped, and without a full screening of the packages before take-off, gaping holes remain in the system, said Markey spokesman Israel Klein.
"There is technology that is deployed already that would do that job," he said, "but not in the way they are thinking about."
Klein said government officials and industry leaders have bucked alternatives like using some machines for screening larger cargo, as well as more thorough canine and human inspections, because they fear they will slow down the system and lose money.
Shipping experts agree, and say industry lobbyists have lined up against the amendment that passed the House 278-146.
"The industry is somewhere between virulently and violently opposed to this because of a deep fear that it would profoundly slow down the shipping of goods by air, adding enormous time, inefficiently adding cost to a system that — at least the industry believes — would reduce security rather than improve it," said Paul Page, editor of Cargo World (search), an industry magazine.
Steve Alterman, a spokesman for the Cargo Airline Association (search), said forcing such measures on passenger airlines right now will probably mean the end of their shipment programs. "We think it would be bad business for the cargo and passenger planes not to be secure – but we do not think the Markey amendment is the answer."
Alterman said the industry would support any technology that looks at all cargo without inhibiting its flow. "But that technology does not exist," he said.
While the arguments are familiar, they don't wash with Markey.
"Those are the same arguments put to us that all baggage could not be screened, that it would render all of the airlines unable to fly, shut down commerce," said Klein. "It didn't happen that way at all."
The Homeland Security Department budget heads into House-Senate conference when Congress reconvenes in September. A similar version of the amendment did not go before the Senate, and congressional sources said this week that its prospects for remaining in the final bill are "uncertain."
In the Senate, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (search), D-Calif., and Kay Bailey Hutchison (search), R-Texas, have introduced their own air cargo security bill, which takes a milder approach to establishing inspection requirements on the airlines. It passed the Senate in May and was referred to the House.
Klein said a softer touch is not the answer right now, considering that the threat level against U.S. interests remains high.
"[Terrorists] would just have to ship something and it would be guaranteed not to be screened or inspected," he said. "Once this was put to a vote, House members were put in a difficult position not to vote for it – it's a no-brainer."
This story was originally published on Aug. 22. The current version reflects a correction on the status of the Air Cargo Security Act 2003, in the Senate.