TSA Branch Chief-Certified Cargo Screening Program Marc Rossi, speaking at the recent FAA Aviation Forecast Conference in Washington, emphasized that there will be zero tolerance for unscreened domestic and outbound cargo when the deadline arrives. "This is a firm, fixed date," he explained. "Come August 1, that which is screened will be uplifted, that which is not won't be."

Of course, there is a loophole: TSA has maintained for months that it cannot meet the deadline for inbound international cargo because it does not have legal jurisdiction over supply chains outside the US. Rossi said the agency is "working with foreign entities around the world to look at potential harmonization" of cargo security programs. He noted that a portion of the inbound cargo will be screened in accordance with security programs in the countries from which it is coming, but there will be no way to ensure that the screening meets the same standards that TSA is applying for domestic and outbound cargo.

A House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee staffer working on the issue told ATWOnline that Congress is aware that TSA won't meet the deadline for inbound cargo. "I don't see that there's going to be a [formal] exemption granted," he said, but added that there has been no discussion of not allowing inbound cargo into the country. "We're more interested in seeing TSA continuing to work with foreign governments to find solutions for reaching 100% screening," he explained. "We're prepared to accept a delay but not a [permanent] exemption for inbound cargo."

How long a delay will be tolerated? The staffer indicated that Congress would like to see TSA present it with a plan detailing how and when it can achieve 100% inbound screening. "We at least would like to know that the agency has a risk-based approach so that cargo coming from high-risk areas is screened," he said.

On the domestic/outbound front, TSA is ensuring compliance via the Certified Cargo Screening Program, a "voluntary" program under which "screening is distributed throughout the supply chain" (ATW, June 2009). Under this system, screening can be done at a shipper's facility before packing or later by a forwarder before consolidation. A CCSP-certified shipper would document that a packed piece of freight has not been tampered with and is properly sealed and it would be considered "screened."

This is critical because airlines, which are conducting screening related to the February 2009 interim deadline for screening 50% of belly cargo, "are reaching their screening limit," Rossi said, adding that carriers have the capacity to "only screen about 25%" of all domestic/outbound belly cargo.

Complicating matters further is the fact that "there's limited [cargo] screening technology available," he said, and the technology that has been approved is expensive. Congress did not provide funding for cargo screening when it established the law requiring 100% screening, meaning that airlines, forwarders and shippers have to foot the bill themselves.

That leaves shipper "screening" as the best available, least time-consuming and least expensive option. Rossi estimates that for most shippers, it will cost "less than a few thousand dollars to get involved in" CCSP. "For the majority of US shippers, the cost is very minimal," he explained. "You need to conduct a threat assessment for each employee who handles cargo, which costs about $20 per employee, and then invest in proper signage and tape."

The problem, however, is that many shippers are unaware of the 100% screening requirement or don't fully understand the implications of it. Rossi told this website that major forwarders and the biggest shippers have developed plans for complying with the requirement and have joined CCSP. But many medium-sized and smaller shippers have not and, because CCSP technically is voluntary, TSA cannot force companies to join.

"A lot of [shippers] have no idea this is going on or have been misinformed," he said. "The concern is that not enough people have a plan for this. . .We have strong concerns that a lot of [shippers] have not modeled out what they're going to do on August 1. We forecast that one to three million pounds of cargo [carried by air currently] per day doesn't have a plan."

And joining CCSP is not an instant process, meaning that air cargo grounded on Aug. 1 because shippers and/or forwarders are not CCSP-compliant may not be able to get back up in the air for weeks or months. "Time is eroding very quickly," Rossi said. "If [a shipper] contacted us today and was very aggressive, it could probably get [certified] in 45 days, but you would have to be very aggressive about it."