airport security

Under Wraps

TSA aims to get tough—and consistent—on one aspect of air security

Since 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day, the Transportation Security Administration has hurriedly sought to seal the gaps in airline security that still exist in the post-9/11 world.

Just after the New Year began, the U.S. government implemented a barrage of new measures, including mandatory full-body, pat-down searches to U.S.-bound travelers from Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and 11 other countries. TSA also added dozens more names to its no-fly and watch lists. In a Jan. 5 speech, President Barack Obama stressed the importance of aircraft security in today's climate of fear and terrorism.

"We face a challenge of the utmost urgency," he said. "As we saw on Christmas, al-Qaida and its extremist allies will stop at nothing in their efforts to kill Americans. We are determined not only to thwart those plans but to disrupt, dismantle and defeat their networks once and for all."

The Cargo Question

Although passenger security is most often in the national spotlight, cargo security is just as important. That's why TSA mandated that 50 percent of all cargo carried aboard narrow-bodied passenger aircraft had to be screened for explosives by February 2009. Now, air carriers, airports and freight forwarders are preparing for the next stage of the requirement, which says 100 percent of cargo that goes aboard both narrow- and wide-bodied aircraft must be screened by August.

Prior to the new rules, only cargo from unknown or new shippers had to be screened.

Now, companies like Jetstream Freight Forwarding, a TSA-certified cargo screening facility based in Seattle, will have to screen all cargo that it places on aircraft. The company, which ships time-sensitive cargo around the world, has installed a HI-SCAN 100100T-2is X-ray system from Smiths Detection. Staff will primarily use the explosives detection scanner to screen perishables from local growers in the Pacific Northwest and California.

The HI-SCAN 100100T-2is is a medium aperture X-ray inspection system that is specially designed for screening oversized baggage and bulky freight.

Mark Laustra, vice president and general manager of the homeland security division at Smiths, said the new inspection system will save Jetstream untold amounts of time.

"Without this equipment, you had to use a K-9 team to inspect the cargo, or you had to open the box manually," he said. "What the X-ray brought to them is speed, because now all you have to do is drop the box on the conveyor, it goes through, you get an image, and the screener or operator interprets the image to see if there's anything that could be dangerous, and they go from there."

The scanner provides dual views of objects—from the side and the top—enabling reliable examinations of tightly packed freight in a single pass. This shortens inspections times to three to five seconds on average, Laustra said. For a freight forwarder that deals with perishables such as flowers and fruit, fast inspection times are absolutely key. "That's why this type of cargo is placed aboard aircraft and not seagoing vessels or trucks—it has to move quickly," Laustra said. "And if you're shipping food or any kind of pharmaceuticals, for example, you want to get your cargo to the destination quickly. So speed is of the essence, and that's what X-ray provides.

"The dual-view X-ray further expedites the scanning process by enabling screeners to pinpoint foreign objects in a parcel from two directions. If a screener sees something of interest, they now have the coordinates of whatever is inside the parcel."

Bryan Jennings, president of Jetstream Freight Forwarding, said the HI-SCAN 100100T-2is will be a perfect fit for the company's needs. "With the volume of shipping we do, the dual-views make the scanning process more efficient and faster than ever, allowing us to meet both our customer's critical deadlines and the TSA's CCSF requirements," he said.

Calm in the Storm

For travelers flying into the United States, the first few weeks of 2010 was a mess of inconsistent screening procedures, confusion and, more than anything, waiting. The news media and blogosphere were in an uproar about the terrorist attempt on Christmas Day and the future of airport security. Meanwhile, fury continues to grow over one of the more popular cutting-edge screening methods, millimeter wave technology, which the ACLU calls a "virtual strip search."

While TSA walks a fine line between security and privacy for passengers, the group seems to have simplified cargo security as much as possible. By August, 100 percent of air cargo will be screened—much of it by passing through reliable and fast X-ray systems.

In the midst of all the confusion, frustration and inconsistency of passenger air security, at least we can rest easy knowing that cargo security is under wraps.

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