Saturday, October 30, 2010

On the vunerability of Air Cargo

The recent incident about bombs being aboard a UPS cargo plane has brought additional scrutiny to the problem the holes in Air Cargo which might allow a terrorist to get a bomb on a plane. Meanwhile, here in STL, they have been telling us over the boob tube that a Jewish center in Chicago was targeted and was actually sent some cartridges. Apparently they were intercepted in wither England or Dubai. While UPS was featured in the news, a Fed Ex plane was detained in Dubai as well. A couple of UPS planes were detained and searched in the US. Air Cargo has always been a big hole where terrorists can get hold of a plane. There was an incident where a guy shipped himself to DFW on Pilot Air which was a forwarder. I worked in Freight Forwarding for many years and the assumption is that any screening is done by the shipper which has to pass a security check every so often by the TSA. Essentially a forwarder picks up the freight, then transfers it to the best way to get it there at the customers request. that can either be a commercial airline, (like Southwest, American, Delta, Etc) cargo airline (like UPS, Fed Ex, Etc) or through any of a number of Ground companies.

Several years ago, an employee shipped himself in a crate to DFW using Kitty Hawk Airlines which was the major airline we used as a cargo airline. Pilot Air only became suspicious when the guy opened the crate at the destination when he arrived. One only has to remember Fed Ex 705 where a disgruntled Fed Ex Employee flying standby tried to take over his plane by executing the flight crew. (His intention was to crash the aircraft in order to collect on his life insurance so that he would be able to send his kids to college. He was slated to be fired because he had falsified some of his resume when he was hired). It was only recently that all Air Freight slated for shipment on passenger aircraft were subject to the same screening given to luggage. Being out of the industry, I am not sure how this is working out. I know that while we screened our freight well since we shipped for a lot of major companies, it would have been easy to slip something in the freight if one had been a trusted shipper previously shipping with us. I can only hope its much different now.

I worked in Air Cargo for years and while the "trusted shipper" protocol has worked, it has its vulnerabilities. Once one establishes a relationship with a forwarder, one can ship as much as they want without further scrutiny. The onus is on the forwarder to guarantee if the shipment is safe. While it is required that parcels which are on passenger aircraft be screened, the just-in-time nature of forwarding, in which freight arrives sometimes literally just before the plane takes off, allows little time for screening and inspection.

The nature of the packaging leaves little to be desired as well. I have picked up auto shipments where bolts were leaking out of a box that wasn't prepared properly by the forwarder due to a lack of time. I had to wonder if those bolts could have gotten into some vital system on the aircraft, unlikely as it was. This whole system deserves a LOT more scrutiny.

It appears now that this incident is bringing more scrutiny to a recent crash of a UPS 747 in Dubai last month. Before the crash, the pilots, who were the only causalities, reported a fire on board. This may change how the just-in-time screening process is done and may change how freight is handled. It may end up being a boon to the charter industry since many factories cannot abide delays if they can't make a flight due to increased scrutiny.

Cost is going to be the factor that drives this debate. Just to give you an idea, I was asked once to get a bid for a charter flight for a truck frame to California from Louisville to guarantee its arrival. To charter a DC-9 from our contractor that we used the most was $32,000. I had to wonder that every time we were unloading a DC-9 charter for Ford, it was costing them not only the $32,000 they were charged by the Air Charter company, but an additional cost of maybe $3000 to offload and transport the freight to the plant which was on the other side of the airport. How much this will add to the cost of doing business is what will be weighed against the threat to the public. As always with these things, it will probably take a great loss of life before the industry finally hunkers down and allows inspections.

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I am interested in CNG vehicles because they are good for the environment and aren't powered by dead Marines. I still have a little hope for the world. Read the musings and enjoy.