Aviation Security:

Progress Made but Actions Needed to Address Challenges in Meeting the Air Cargo Screening Mandate

GAO-10-880T: Published: Jun 30, 2010. Publicly Released: Jun 30, 2010.

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This testimony discusses air cargo screening. In 2008, about 7.3 billion pounds of cargo was transported on U.S. passenger flights--approximately 58 percent of which was transported domestically (domestic cargo) and 42 percent of which was transported on flights arriving in the United States from a foreign location (inbound cargo). The 2009 Christmas Day plot to detonate an explosive device during an international flight bound for Detroit provided a vivid reminder that terrorists continue to view passenger aircraft as attractive targets. According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the security threat posed by terrorists introducing explosive devices in air cargo shipments is significant, and the risk and likelihood of such an attack directed at passenger aircraft is high. To help enhance the security of air cargo, the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (9/11 Commission Act) mandated the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to establish a system to physically screen 50 percent of cargo on passenger aircraft--including the domestic and inbound flights of foreign and U.S. passenger operations--by February 2009, and 100 percent of such cargo by August 2010. The 9/11 Commission Act defines screening for purposes of the air cargo screening mandate as a physical examination or nonintrusive methods of assessing whether cargo poses a threat to transportation security. The act also requires that such a system provide a level of security commensurate with the level of security for the screening of checked baggage. According to TSA, the mission of its air cargo security program is to secure the air cargo transportation system while not unduly impeding the flow of commerce. Although the mandate is applicable to both domestic and inbound cargo, TSA stated that it must address the mandate for domestic and inbound cargo through separate systems because of differences in its authority to regulate domestic and international air cargo industry stakeholders. This testimony is based on a report we are publicly releasing today that assesses TSA's progress and related challenges in meeting the air cargo screening mandate. It addresses the following key issues in our report: progress TSA has made in meeting the 9/11 Commission Act screening mandate as it applies to (1) domestic air cargo and (2) inbound air cargo and related challenges it faces for each. For our report, we reviewed documents such as TSA's air cargo security policies and procedures. We also conducted site visits to four category X U.S. commercial airports and one category I U.S. commercial airport that process domestic and inbound air cargo. We selected these airports based on airport size, passenger and air cargo volumes, location, and participation in TSA's screening program. At these airports, we observed screening operations and technologies and interviewed local TSA officials, airport management officials, and representatives from 7 air carriers, 24 freight forwarders, 3 shippers, and 2 handling agents to obtain their views on TSA's system to implement the screening mandate. We selected these air carriers, freight forwarders, shippers, and handling agents based on input from TSA and industry stakeholders. More detailed information about our scope and methodology is included in our June 2010 report. We conducted this work in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.

TSA has taken a number of actions to meet the screening mandate as it applies to domestic cargo, including creating a voluntary program to allow screening to take place at various points in the air cargo supply chain and mandating that, effective May 1, 2010, 75 percent of all cargo transported on passenger aircraft is screened. 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. Moreover, TSA has made some progress in meeting the screening mandate as it applies to inbound cargo, but challenges exist, in part related to TSA's limited ability to regulate foreign entities. TSA does not expect to achieve 100 percent screening of inbound air cargo by the mandated August 2010 deadline. We made five recommendations to TSA to address these challenges. TSA concurred with three of these recommendations, partially concurred with one, and did not concur with the remaining recommendation, which we discuss in more detail later in this statement. TSA has made progress in meeting the 9/11 Commission Act air cargo screening mandate as it applies to domestic cargo, and has taken several key steps in this effort, such as increasing the amount of domestic cargo subject to screening, creating a voluntary program to allow screening to take place at various points along the air cargo supply chain, and taking steps to test air cargo screening technologies, among other actions. However, TSA faces several challenges in fully developing and implementing a system to screen 100 percent of domestic air cargo, including those related to industry participation and technology.

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