Sunday, July 14, 2002

Cargo jets raise fear of terrorism

Freight carriers pose same risks, get less scrutiny

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HEBRON - About 50 times a day, large cargo jets as big as the passenger planes used as flying bombs on Sept. 11 fly in and out of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

        Around Wilmington to the north of Greater Cincinnati, several hundred more big jets fly in and out every day. Airports in Indianapolis and Louisville also are abuzz nightly with planes headed across the country, carrying vital documents, personal letters, even organs to be transplanted.

        But when it comes to security, the cargo companies operating these planes do not face nearly the same scrutiny from federal officials as their passenger-carrying brethren, leading many in the aviation community to worry that air freight firms might be the next target for terrorists.

        “Cargo operations are currently at significant risk due to the absence of basic security measures,” warns Duane E. Woerth, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association, in a letter to Transportation Security Administration chief John Magaw dated April 26. “Because of these deficiencies . . . it is entirely possible that terrorists may opt to commandeer a cargo aircraft, instead of a passenger aircraft, and use it as a guided weapon against persons and property on the ground.”

        Officials with companies such as DHL Worldwide Express, which operates its domestic hub locally, and other air cargo companies, as well as federal officials, say that security remains a top priority after the attacks.

        DHL has even installed metal detectors and X-ray machines to screen all employees at its domestic hub here, even though federal guidelines do not require it.

        Yet critics say that with all the attention federal aviation officials are paying to meet year-end deadlines to federalize the nation's air security system and screen all luggage electronically for bombs, the $43 billion air cargo industry may be getting short shrift.

        They say that while companies such as DHL, United Parcel Service and Federal Express operate jets that are the same size as those at major airlines, they are not bound by the same tight regulations and deadlines as passenger carriers.

        Besides the worry that a plane could be used in a re-creation of Sept. 11 there's an added concern: such a cargo plane being blown up over a populated area by a bomb shipped inside a package.

        “The problem is that a freighter is just as good a weapon as a passenger plane, and in fact, may be better because it's heavier,” says Robert Monetti, president of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 Inc., which represents families of those who died in the plane that was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland.

        “And access to these planes is a lot easier in many places than to a passenger plane, considering perimeter security at most airports,” says Mr. Monetti, whose son died in the 1988 Lockerbie terrorist bombing and who has since consulted with the Federal Aviation Administration on airline security. “Whether or not this is the biggest hole in air security is like saying which is the biggest hole in a screen door. But it is a major concern right now.”

Regional concern

        A number of published reports, including a May story in USA Today, have cited internal Transportation Security Administration memos that said there were potential gaps in air cargo security. This goes for both passenger airlines - all of which have their own cargo services and carry much of the U.S. mail - and air freight companies.

        That freight business is a major presence regionally. Locally, DHL operates about 50 flights a day and runs a fleet of 36 planes, all larger jets such as the Airbus A300, the Boeing 727 and the DC-8.

        In addition, Wilmington-based Airborne Express owns and operates a fleet of 120 planes, including 73 DC-9s and DC-10s (officials for that company would only say they were working to comply with current regulations). And air express giants Federal Express and United Parcel Service operate hubs in Indianapolis and Louisville, respectively.

        DHL and other companies say that since Sept. 11, they have voluntarily stepped up security, including screening those who have access to airplanes more carefully and cracking down on what kinds of packages they will accept. Passenger carriers, including local stalwart Delta Air Lines and Erlanger-based regional airline Comair, also say that they have been limited in the kind of mail they can carry and from whom they may accept shipments.

        And while acknowledging that the emphasis has been placed on passenger carriers so far, officials from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the agency created in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, say they are working to tighten air cargo security as well.

        “We have put a lot of things into place, that understandably, we can't talk about,” says Bill Wilkening, manager of dangerous goods and cargo security for the TSA's aviation division.

        He acknowledges that aside from some restrictions put in place in October 2001, no further security regulations have been placed on air cargo companies, but that further tightening is under consideration.

        “We have several task forces in place that are studying the issue,” he says.

One company's efforts

        Within a week of the Sept. 11 attacks, DHL installed metal detectors and X-ray machines to screen its 1,800 or so employees that come in and out of the hub/sort facility at the airport.

        And a renewed emphasis has been placed on overall security, with issues ranging from wearing an ID badge correctly to what can or can't be carried inside the secure perimeter.

        All employees were issued new badges and their backgrounds were checked again soon after the attacks, although DHL officials say that new workers face three different background checks bef ore they are hired.

        “We won't even let people bring in pocket knives, and we haven't heard a single complaint from our employees,” says John Lambert, DHL's regional manager for safety and security.

        That process will be made permanent when the company moves into its new building on the other side of the airport. Even before the attacks, metal detectors, an internal closed-circuit video system and X-ray machines were already being installed in the new $225 million building.

        In addition, company officials say that the new facility will be equipped with a computer identification badge system that will prevent those without clearance from accessing sensitive areas, such as the plane loading areas. Currently, employees who don't have clearance are supposed to be challenged by other employees if they wander into a restricted area.

        “We started improving security and including that in our planning process for the new building, well before (Sept. 11), and have been working on it for 2 years,” says Steve White, DHL's vice president of the Cincinnati hub and gateways. “We had an $800,000 budget to work with, and haven't had to spend much more. And honestly, other than putting in reinforced towers armed with machine guns, there's not much more we can do.”

        As for packages, DHL handles about 150,000 parcels through its hub daily. Company officials say they continue to reserve the right to open and inspect any packages deemed suspect, a right not extended to the postal service and something that was in place even before Sept. 11. Mr. Lambert would not say whether DHL currently was or eventually would randomly X-ray packages, saying “it remains an option.”

        Mr. Lambert added that company workers randomly test security at customer service centers, posing as customers to make sure employees follow security procedures.

        Mr. White adds that the company has also made “thousands” of visits to known customers to verify they still exist - “a staggering feat of manpower,” he says.

        The rest of the industry has undertaken such precautions, says the TSA's Mr. Wilkening, who declined to offer specifics. He says the October 2001 requirements tightened security, but says those requirements are confidential. TSA officials did confirm that cargo companies are conducting random searches of parcels to act as a deterrent against someone trying to send a bomb through the air.

        Still, some industry insiders point to the fact that companies such as DHL don't face the same tough requirements as passenger carriers as a potential weakness.

        “Not to say that FedEx hasn't taken some steps, but there is just no strict regulatory oversight of air cargo companies right now, and sure, it might come in six months or a year, the holes exist now,” says David Webb, a pilot for Memphis-based Federal Express and chairman of that company's branch of the Air Line Pilots Association. “I just hope that it doesn't take a UPS 747 to crash into the Empire State Building or a FedEx A300 to be flown into the Eiffel Tower to make this point.”

Commerce vs. security

        With so much revenue on the line, any interruption in service co uld be disastrous to an industry that also has been rocked in the post-Sept. 11 economy. For example, the “known shipper” program is not required of air cargo companies if their planes don't carry passengers, but sometimes parcels might fall under those rules because shippers occasionally use passenger airlines to carry their freight.

        “We understand that it's a balance between security and commerce, and we can't shut the whole system down,” Mr. Wilkening says.


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