New air cargo rules proposed
Legislation would mandate screening on all cargo by 2008
From Silvio Carrillo
CNN Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With hope of closing a loophole in airline security nearly four years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, lawmakers Tuesday introduced two amendments to the 2006 Department of Homeland Security authorization bill.
The first would mandate the inspection of all cargo before it is shipped on passenger airplanes by 2008.
Until that date, the second amendment would require airlines to notify passengers when unscreened cargo being shipped in the cargo hold of a passenger plane.
"Twenty-two percent of all the air cargo that is transported in the United States is loaded aboard passenger planes," said Rep. Ed Markey, a co-author of the bipartisan legislation.
"So while you and I empty our pockets, remove our shoes, walk through the metal detector, and as our baggage is being screened, tons and tons of mail and cargo packages are loaded under our seats without ever being physically screened," the Massachusetts Democrat said.
The Transportation Security Administration relies now on what's called the "known shipper" database, a list of outfits approved by TSA to ship with little or no screening.
A TSA representative would not release information on what percentage of air cargo is screened, citing security reasons.
"The agency inspects at-risk cargo that presents the greatest security threat, using current explosives detection technologies, canine teams or visual inspection," said TSA spokesperson Amy von Walter.
Markey was asked why such a requirement hasn't been dealt with by previous legislation.
"The airline industry doesn't want this burden placed on them," Markey said, referring to the industry's lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill.
Lobbyists for the industry argued, however, that no matter how much Congress legislates, the technology still does not exist to take on the variety of items that are shipped.
"There is simply no technology that currently exists that can screen 100 percent of cargo," said David Wirsing, executive director of the Airforwarders Association.
"Cargo comes in sizes that are far larger than typical passenger baggage and comes in a variety of shapes that machines cannot adapt to fit."
The vice president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations offered a different assessment at a Washington press conference.
"Securing all cargo that is carried aboard commercial airlines is a very achievable goal, and this is the first step," Paul Onorato said, according to the group's Web site.
"The technology exists right now to screen cargo carried aboard commercial aircraft."
And, said the legislation's co-author, Rep. Christopher Shays, passengers at the very least should know if there is unscreened cargo aboard their plane.
"Let passengers know that," the Connecticut Republican said. "Passengers have a right to know it."
Mary Fetchet, whose son died in the 9/11 attacks, also attended the press conference to support the legislation.
"By double-locking the front door and leaving the back wide open, the DHS has neglected its responsibility to provide the highest standard of security available to the American people," she said.