Air cargo barely checked, GAO says

November 17, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- While airline passengers endure extensive and sometimes invasive security screening, the cargo in the hold is barely checked, a new federal report says.

The report, issued yesterday by the Government Accountability Office, identifies significant vulnerabilities in the Department of Homeland Security's policies for guaranteeing the safety of the 23 billion pounds of commercial cargo shipped by air every year.

The report was prepared at the request of five House members representing each party.

"Americans need to know that their sneakers may be inspected but that objects the size of a car are waved on board," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and member of the Select Committee on Homeland Security.

Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, said the pre-boarding screening of passengers creates a "false sense of security," because cargo on those planes goes unchecked. About half the baggage hold on a passenger jet is allotted for unaccompanied cargo.

"This study reveals the gaping hole in air cargo security that continually puts flight attendants, passengers and pilots at risk every day," Caldwell said. "This isn't anything new ... but I hope Congress now sees the urgency of the issue."

Although the Bush administration created a plan in November 2003 to secure air cargo, officials have yet to schedule its completion, the report said.

The plan outlined four key objectives: boost security at points before cargo gets to airports; identify and screen high-risk cargo as it enters the shipping chain; develop technology to inspect high-risk cargo; and improve security aboard planes and in airports.

The Transportation Security Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security, does not require inspection of all cargo. It makes random checks of some items, but exempts others.

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