An industry group is asking Sen. Susan Collins to postpone filing legislation that would codify an air cargo security program being tested by U.S. Customs for pre-screening shipments before loading on an aircraft at a foreign airport.
Customs and Border Protection is halfway through a 28-month exercise called Air Cargo Advanced Screening (ACAS) in which seven data elements about the shipment are electronically submitted by select airlines and other companies prior to departure and run through a rules-based engine that searches for anomalies indicating a potential threat that requires inspection.
The pilot program is enthusiastically supported by the air cargo industry, many of whose members are actively involved with CBP in creating the program and defining its parameters. CBP eventually plans to issue a regulation mandating early transmission of air shipment data.
But the Airforwarders Association, in a June 21 letter to Collins said requiring an advance security filing for all air cargo shipments is premature while the pilot program is still in progress.
Collins, R-Maine, is the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“We definitely need to test the feasibility” of collecting pre-departure data across all sectors of the air cargo industry, Airfowarders Association Executive Director Brandon Fried said in an interview.
ACAS was rapidly implemented with the four major express carriers, including FedEx and UPS, in response to a late 2010 plot to smuggle explosives on cargo planes and detonate them in midair.
The second phase of the pilot is just getting underway with passenger airlines and freight forwarders. A third phase will involve all-cargo carriers. The drawn out testing is necessary because each of those sectors operate differently and don’t have access to all the information at the same time. Identifying when and how airlines and forwarders will submit data, and establishing response protocols for a suspicious shipment, are key goals of the pilot.
By all accounts the advance data pilot is working well, with CBP having received more than 23 million transmissions so far.
Fried questioned whether legislation is needed because transport providers would have to comply with any regulation to enter their goods into the country.
Codifying a rule takes away some of an agency’s flexibility to quickly respond to external conditions in the future, he said.
CBP and industry officials are most concerned about writing a rule covering passenger airlines because the cargo is tendered through middlemen. Forwarders are the primary customers of airlines and often consolidate many shipments into larger ones for carriage by an airline. Express carriers and all-cargo carriers typically deal directly with the cargo owner, although some also accept shipments from forwarders.
In an effort to get shipment data as soon as possible, CBP is allowing forwarders or carriers to submit the seven data elements. The information is a subset of the manifest supplied by carriers after takeoff.
CBP is encouraging forwarders to volunteer for ACAS and transmit the data to help it develop a rule that doesn’t negatively impact their business.
It’s too early to move to full implementation because the lessons from the pilot need to be factored into any rulemaking, the Airforwarders Association letter said.
It would not be the first time Congress has asked CBP to implement measures that the agency was studying. CBP several years ago initiated a pilot program in a half-dozen foreign seaports to test whether it was possible to scan every inbound container before loading on a vessel. Congress subsequently passed legislation requiring 100 percent scanning of all containers overseas by mid-2012. The Department of Homeland Security recently filed for a two-year waiver from the requirement and most lawmakers are not pressing the department to meet the deadline because they now realize the enormous implementation challenges involved. - Eric Kulisch