Aviation Security:

TSA Has Made Progress but Faces Challenges in Meeting the Statutory Mandate for Screening Air Cargo on Passenger Aircraft

GAO-10-446: Published: Jun 28, 2010. Publicly Released: Jun 30, 2010.

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Billions of pounds of cargo are transported on U.S. passenger flights annually. The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is the primary federal agency responsible for securing the air cargo system. The 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 mandated DHS to establish a system to screen 100 percent of cargo flown on passenger aircraft by August 2010. As requested, GAO reviewed TSA's progress in meeting the act's screening mandate, and any related challenges it faces for both domestic (cargo transported within and from the United States) and inbound cargo (cargo bound for the United States). GAO reviewed TSA's policies and procedures, interviewed TSA officials and air cargo industry stakeholders, and conducted site visits at five U.S. airports, selected based on size, among other factors.

TSA has made progress in meeting the air cargo screening mandate as it applies to domestic cargo, but faces challenges in doing so that highlight the need for a contingency plan. TSA has, for example, 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, TSA faces several challenges in developing and implementing a system to screen 100 percent of domestic air cargo, and it is questionable, based on reported screening rates, whether 100 percent of such cargo will be screened by August 2010 without impeding the flow of commerce. For example, shipper participation in the voluntary screening program has been lower than targeted by TSA. In addition, TSA has not completed a staffing study to determine the number of inspectors needed to oversee the screening program. Because it is unclear how many industry stakeholders will join the program, TSA could benefit from establishing milestones to complete a staffing study to help ensure that it has the resources it needs under different scenarios. Moreover, TSA faces technology challenges that could affect its ability to meet the screening mandate. Among these, there is no technology approved by TSA to screen large pallets or containers of cargo, which suggests the need for alternative approaches to screening such cargo. TSA also does not verify the self-reported data submitted by screening participants. Several of these challenges suggest the need for a contingency plan, in case the agency's current initiatives are not successful in meeting the mandate without impeding the flow of commerce. However, TSA has not developed such a plan. Addressing these issues could better position TSA to meet the mandate. TSA has made some progress in meeting the screening mandate as it applies to inbound cargo by taking steps to increase the percentage of screened inbound cargo--including working to understand the screening standards of other nations and coordinating with them to mutually strengthen their respective security efforts. Nevertheless, challenges remain and TSA does not expect to achieve 100 percent screening of inbound air cargo by the mandated August 2010 deadline. TSA officials estimate that air carriers are meeting the current mandated screening level of 50 percent of inbound cargo based on estimates rather than on actual data as required by law. Thus, TSA cannot verify if mandated screening levels are being met. In addition, the agency has not determined how it will eventually meet the screening mandate as it applies to inbound cargo; developing such a plan could better position TSA to assess its progress toward meeting the mandate.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to TSA, TSA delivered the staffing study in December 2010. The staffing study stated that TSA's statistical models for workforce planning take into account the number of certified cargo screening facilities, thus indicating that the study will assist TSA in determining the resources necessary to provide oversight of the Certified Cargo Screening Program. Based on this action, we consider this recommendation closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To enhance efforts to secure the air cargo transportation system and establish a system to screen 100 percent of air cargo transported on passenger aircraft, the Administrator of TSA should establish milestones for the completion of TSA's staffing study to assist in determining the resources necessary to provide Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP) oversight.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: TSA provided information that addresses the domestic and inbound portions of the recommendation. For the domestic portion, TSA verified that part of the Transportation Security Inspector-Cargo (TSI-C) inspection includes ensuring that cargo is being screened at 100 percent, and that TSI-Cs compare screening logs to shipping documentation to verify 100 percent screening in that way also. For the inbound portion, TSA verified that reporting mechanisms are in place and being used to report actual screening data rather than estimates for all inbound cargo, the specifics of which are considered sensitive security information. This information indicates that TSA has in place a mechanism to verify the accuracy of the domestic and inbound self-reported screening data, which is now all reported as 100 percent screened. Based on these actions, we consider this recommendation closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To enhance efforts to secure the air cargo transportation system and establish a system to screen 100 percent of air cargo transported on passenger aircraft, the Administrator of TSA should develop a mechanism to verify the accuracy of all screening data, both self-reported domestic data and inbound cargo data, through random checks or other practical means. For inbound air cargo, complete the agency's plan to obtain actual data, rather than estimates, for all inbound screening, including establishing time frames and milestones for completion of the plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our June 2010 report on air cargo security (GAO-10-446), we reported that cargo that has already been transported on one leg of a passenger flight--known as in-transit cargo--may be subsequently transferred to another passenger flight without undergoing screening. Since the Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requires less inbound cargo to be screened than domestic cargo, not screening in-transit cargo that is transferred from an inbound flight to a domestic flight could pose a security vulnerability. As of February 2010, TSA was not planning to require in-transit cargo transferred from an inbound flight to a domestic flight be physically screened because of the logistical difficulties associated with screening cargo that is transferred from one flight to another. In our June 2010 report, we recommended that TSA develop a plan to require the screening of in-transit cargo. In its agency comments to this report, TSA stated that as of August 2010, the agency would require the screening of 100 percent of in-transit cargo. TSA reported that the agency published updated screening requirements, effective August 2010, that require 100 percent screening of in-transit cargo if it cannot be verified as previously screened. In October 2010, TSA reported that discussions with GAO played a role in the agency's decision to require 100 percent screening of in-transit cargo. As a result, in-transit cargo that is transferred from an inbound flight to a domestic flight is now required to undergo the same level of screening as domestic cargo.

    Recommendation: To enhance efforts to secure the air cargo transportation system and establish a system to screen 100 percent of air cargo transported on passenger aircraft, the Administrator of TSA should develop a plan, with milestones, for how and when the agency intends to require the screening of in-transit cargo.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: TSA reported to Congress on 9/21/2011 that 100 percent of cargo transported on flights of passenger aircraft originating within the United States was being screened in accordance with the 9/11 Commission Act. Therefore, a contingency plan for meeting the screening mandate as it applies to domestic cargo is no longer necessary.

    Recommendation: To enhance efforts to secure the air cargo transportation system and establish a system to screen 100 percent of air cargo transported on passenger aircraft, the Administrator of TSA should develop a contingency plan for meeting the mandate as it applies to domestic cargo that considers alternatives to address potential CCSP participation shortfalls and screening technology limitations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: TSA's air carrier security programs, effective 6/15/12 and 7/10/12, include provisions for meeting the 100 percent screening mandate as it applies to inbound cargo.

    Recommendation: To enhance efforts to secure the air cargo transportation system and establish a system to screen 100 percent of air cargo transported on passenger aircraft, the Administrator of TSA should develop a plan, with milestones, for how and when the agency intends to meet the mandate as it applies to inbound cargo.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

 

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