According to government figures, in 2008, merchandise shipped into the U.S. by airplane accounted for 20 percent of the nation's imports, with a value of $417 billion. That's a great deal of items and only one, or two, would have to explode to have, through terror, a crippling effect upon the nation's economy, to say nothing of the nation's spirit.

That was the grim possibility lawmakers dealt with today at a hearing of the Senate's Committee on Homeland Security, as they took up the task of ensuring that America's air cargo remained safe.

Security of the air cargo supply chain is critical, and we are developing security enhancements in close coordination with industry because we understand the value of air cargo to our country's economy, Alan Bersin, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told the Senate committee.

TSA continues its efforts toward ensuring screening of 100 percent of cargo on inbound international passenger flights, and is working with DHS, our international partners, and the private sector to improve cargo screening on all-cargo aircraft, said John Pistole, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration.

Both CBP and TSA are agencies of the Department of Homeland Security.

On Oct. 28, acting on a tip from Saudi Arabian intelligence, authorities discovered two packages containing the explosive PETN onboard two cargo planes, originating in Yemen. The packages were addressed to synagogues in Chicago.

One package was intercepted at East Midlands Airport in England, taken from a UPS cargo plane, while the other package was taken from a FedEx plane in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

The bombs were packed into toner cartridges for computer printers. U.S. authorities said the plot appeared to originate with Al Qaeda in Yemen.

PETN was also the explosive sewn into the garments of a Nigerian terrorist who attempted to blow up a plane last Christmas over Detroit. That plot was also traced to Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

The discovery of the deadly packages triggered a terrorist scare that caused the searching of cargo planes and facilities throughout the world. several nations, including the U.S., stopped shipments from Yemen.

As Pistole and Bersin explained to the Senate panel, the administration took immediate steps in the wake of the incidents to enhance security regarding air cargo shipments.

In addition to stopping shipments from Yemen, DHS sent Pistole and a team of TSA inspectors to Yemen to help that government enhance Yemen's security procedures.

Late last week, TSA directed industry carriers to begin implementing additional precautionary security measures for international flights inbound to the United States. Specifically, the ban on air cargo from Yemen continued and was extended to all air cargo from Somalia as well. In addition, no high risk cargo was allowed on passenger aircraft. Toner and ink cartridges over 16 ounces are now prohibited on passenger aircraft in both carry-on bags and checked bags on domestic and international flights in-bound to the United States. The ban also applies to certain inbound international air cargo shipments, DHS officials said.

All cargo identified as high risk will now go through additional and enhanced screening. These measures also impact inbound international mail packages, which must be screened individually and certified to have come from an established postal shipper, officials said.

The Administration is also working closely with industry and our international partners to expedite the receipt of cargo manifests for international flights to the United States prior to departure in order to identify and screen items based on risk and current intelligence, Pistole said.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-MS, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, and committee member U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-TX, yesterday sent a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano with their concerns and recommendations regarding the issue.

Questions remain about the security of U.S.-bound cargo originating in foreign countries, the Congress Members wrote. It is this threat vector - cargo on in-bound all-cargo and passenger aircraft - that is of great concern.

Thompson and Jackson-Lee urged Napolitano to establish air cargo security working groups with members of the air cargo and air passenger industries to ensure security measures were up to date.

 It is unclear how TSA can effectively address the evolving nature of the terrorist threat without consistent and institutionalized input from critical industry stakeholders that are on the front lines of aviation security, the lawmakers said.

Industry members also had advice for lawmakers and the administration.

 Airforwarders and others in the air cargo industry are 100 percent committed to safety and security, but that is the only instance when a percentage is appropriate in any discussion of cargo security, said Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association. We urge Congress to reject additional calls for 100 percent screening of inbound cargo. Instead, policymakers should enact a risk-based system for global air cargo security, as recommended by the supply chain and our international partners.

The Airforwarders Associationpresented a set of recommendations for consideration by Congress, including:

  • improving inter-agency cooperation: TSA and CBP are finally collaborating on practices and policies to better streamline the international cargo security system. This must be expanded in both scope and substance, and should also include the Department of State and Department of Commerce.
  • including intelligence and supply chain solutions: Airport screening should not be considered a first line of defense but instead an effective complement to solutions like TSA's Certified Cargo Screening Program and freight targeting from cargo manifests, already in place for domestic cargo. These should be expanded to the all-cargo universe.
  • investing in additional methods and technologies for screening: Funds for developing technologies for screening, and reviewing existing technology and procedures should be allocated immediately. The EU and other foreign carriers are using pallet screening technologies that the TSA has deemed inadequate -- streamlining certification for these machines is an imperative first step in harmonization.
  • encouraging inter-industry cooperation and information sharing: For too long, those in the supply chain have been divided by their differences. CCSP brought shippers, passenger carriers and forwarders together and created solutions. The current effort must include all members of the international air cargo supply chain.

We support the data sharing and dissemination recommendations outlined by TSA and CBP in their testimony today, and have already begun working with the agencies to best implement them, said Fried. The air freight forwarding industry has worked tirelessly to achieve new screening mandates and has been instrumental in implementing effective security programs for domestic cargo. Our cargo security has never been higher due to these efforts. We will continue to work closely with industry partners and the government to improve security.