Senate Subcommittee Revisits Air Cargo Security Needs

The Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Security had a field hearing on the scanning and screening of air cargo on February 25 at Logan Airport in Boston.

Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), ranking member of the Subcommittee, opened the hearing by reflecting on the losses that the country suffered as a result of the 9/11 attacks and the lessons that the aviation industry learned. Markey cited concerns from Logan personnel as his motivation for securing a provision that required 100 percent screening of air cargo on passenger aircraft in the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007. (This has been an elusive goal – see this Congressional Research Service report for more background.)

After giving an overview of the TSA’s certified cargo screening program (CCSP), Markey stated that his number one priority for the hearing was determining how the CCSP could be improved. In addition, Markey mentioned TSA’s strained budget, passenger and baggage screening, drone activity near airports, and cybersecurity in airports.

The hearing then heard from witnesses (click on their name to see their written testimony).

John Beckius, Executive Director of the TSA’s air cargo division, started his testimony with a comprehensive account of the ways the TSA has sought to identify the problems with and improve the certified cargo screening program.

Ed Freni, Director of Aviation for the Massachusetts Port Authority highlighted the security measures that Boston-Logan airport takes to keep passengers and cargo safe. Freni contended that more attention should be paid to enhancing security on cargo only flights and that canine screening would allow airlines to inspect cargo “without impeding the pace of commerce.”

Steve Urchuk, Chief Technology Officer for Analogic, gave an overview of how deployments of the company’s ConneCT has promoted threat detection in a number of airports and promoted Analogic’s new 1000 bag-per-hour screening system.

Brandon Fried, Executive Director of the Airforwarders Association, started with a list of the advantages of the CCSP and canine screening methods then moved into a call for more technological solutions for expedient screening of air cargo. Fried took time to insist that TSA prioritize consistency and communication with policy and regulatory guidance.  Fried suggested that the TSA make an effort to make sure that cargo screeners can get official policy guidance from the TSA policy office when requirements differ between different inspectors.

Jennifer Ritter, United Airlines Flight Attendant and representative of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, started by giving a historical account of AFA-CWA’s involvement in the political movement towards 100 percent screening of cargo and followed that up by affirming AFA-CWA’s support for the FASTER Act and the Cyber AIR  act. Ritter also pointed out the “gaping hole in aviation security” that the 35-day government shutdown created, as well as other safety and security problems that insufficient or interrupted funding for TSA creates for travelers and airplane staff.

In questioning, Markey asked Beckius to enumerate the requirements of the certification system and then asked Fried what needs to be done to improve the system. Fried explained that there are inconsistencies between how field inspectors enforce policy and the intent of the policy. After a bit of a back and forth between the three, Markey asked for a status update on the resolution of the inconsistencies in enforcement in 60 days.

Markey asked Ritter to elaborate on the issue of lithium-ion batteries being put in the cargo hold during gate check. Multiple witnesses weighed in during this exchange. Fried raised the potential of canines being used as a tool to screen baggage, with Ritter then expressing concern over the welfare and potential over use of canines.

The next exchange revolved around the TSA’s feasibility study on CT scanners and EDS. Fried mentioned that it’s now too early to tell what the results of the TSA’s pilot program for CT/EDS are but that in 6 months the TSA will report on its findings in accordance with the TSA Modernization Act . Urchuck praised CT as a cost-effective measure for imaging. Markey asked why it’s taking so long to move forward with modern imaging technologies in civilian applications. Urchuck cited market realities that haven’t encouraged a more robust investment in the production of CT scanners but says that initiatives like the 100 percent screening program make it possible for industry players to make the necessary investments in production in the long term.

Markey moved on to ask Beckius how the TSA’s efforts to evaluate and certify CT scanning technology were going, and he responded by saying only one item has been brought to the TSA to review and evaluate. Markey asks about the airport industry’s general reaction to the CT scanners and Beckius reports that there are concerns with cost and aperture size, despite Urchuck insisting that CT scanners are a cost-effective solution. Fried affirmed these concerns and reiterates his support for an expanded use of canines.

Markey brought the conversation back to cost by noting that the relative stagnation of the TSA’s budget posed a concern especially when the responsibility of certifying technology for air cargo screening was considered. Beckius maintained that the TSA would always be ready to assess and certify any new technology that was put in front of them avoiding a direct ask for more funding. Fried, however, did directly make that ask. Markey built on this exchange by citing the practice of diverting one-third of the Aviation Security Fee to deficit reduction by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 and that 20 billion dollars would be diverted away from aviation security by 2027. Markey then asked the witnesses if they would support Markey’s FASTER Act (S. 472) to repeal that diversion. All witnesses expressed enthusiastic support, except Beckius who again maintained that the administration would do its best with whatever budget Congress gave it.

The hearing evolved into a discussion on the response to unauthorized drone usage. Freni told a story of a recreational drone user that flew onto a runway in Boston-Logan and had no idea of the risk they had posed. Ritter and Fried both acknowledged the gravity of the issue as well.

The emerging outbreak of coronavirus took center of the conversation with Markey asking Freni how the Massachusetts Port Authority has approached the problem. Ritter expounded on the myriad of problems that the coronavirus outbreak creates for flight attendants.

The issue of cybersecurity took a notable amount of time in the hearing as well. Ritter and Fried expressed serious concerns about the cybersecurity threats that exist on the plane and in the air. Fried continued by asking for improved information-sharing between the industry and the government.

Markey moved the conversation by asking about the pilot program for CT scanners that screen passenger items. Freni summarized the results of this pilot program for Boston Logan and Urchuk advised that TSA should look for 2-3 “healthy suppliers” for CT scanners over a single-vender approach.

The hearing ended on the topic of secondary flight deck barriers when Markey asked Ritter to expand on the problem in her closing remarks. Markey pivoted to criticizing strategies to cut costs that he said were not in the interest of strengthening security.


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