The discovery of a cargo shipment containing explosive material destined for the US from Yemen at the weekend has raised the prospect of a review of current cargo checks – which have been described as “less exacting than those on passengers” by former head of security at BAA, Norman Shanks. Any change in legislation could have serious repercussions in terms of speed of delivery for those companies involved in air freight shipments, particularly for critical and emergency deliveries.
The explosive device, found during a second precautionary search on a UPS cargo plane at the UK’s East Midlands Airport, was found in a printer cartridge.
A second device was sent with FedEx, which was initially thought to have been carried on another cargo flight also from the Yemeni capital Sanaa, but was later found to have been brought on passenger planes from Sanaa via Doha. It was intercepted in Dubai.
The UK’s home secretary, Theresa May, has pledged to review air freight security but industry groups have warned against a “knee jerk reaction”.
Peter Quantrill, director general of the British International Freight Association (BIFA), said in a statement: “The issue requires attention to look at systems and procedures, though it must be stressed that there are already well established, in depth and organised processes in place.”
In the US, a republican congressman, Edward Markey, has announced that he will introduce legislation that will require 100% screening of all air freight before it is loaded onto aircraft heading to the United States. In 2007, Markey wrote a bill that required 100% screening of all air cargo transported on domestic and international domestic flights in the US.
Markey said that he will introduce the bill when congress reconvenes following the mid-term elections on November 2nd, in which republicans made significant gains against democrats, gaining a majority in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of government in the US.
Seeking to reassure its customers, which are mainly in the automotive sector, Brad Brennan, managing director of emergency freight provider Evolution Time Critical, said: “We will keep a very close eye on developments and ensure that any new legislation is applied. If there are delays that arise as a result of any new measures taken that make air freight delivery too late for production then, in the interests of customers, we would look at alternative methods of bringing in components.”
As with FedEx and UPS, TNT, has responded with an embargo on all shipments from Yemen, as requested by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and said in an official statement this week that it is fully cooperating with any required examination of shipments.
“Shipments originating from Yemen in the same time frame are being quarantined in Dubai or Liege until cleared. The few shipments originating from Yemen always pass through Dubai, where they are screened and x-rayed. TNT does not operate dedicated flights to/from Yemen,” the company said in the statement.
But for nitrate-based materials, such as those involved in the explosives included in last weekend’s cargo, x-ray equipment is not as effective as other explosive detection systems such as ion scanners.
The surveillance technology currently being used did not work on the weekend’s shipments and it was only thanks to intelligence reports that a second check of the cargo was made.
The prospect of higher checks using more effective technology has implications for the speed of delivery, particularly for those companies, such as Evolution Time Critical and Priority Freight, involved in emergency shipments for the automotive sector.
According to Transport Intelligence analyst, Thomas Cullen, ion scanners work at a molecular level and are hard to evade but are expensive and can be slow.
“Scanning everything, such as millions of parcels, is a huge task and would have big implications for air-freight systems. It's not impossible, just hard and expensive,” he told Automotive Logistics News, adding that for emergency shippers it represents a big problem.
The companies involved are waiting to see what changes will be made before making a definitive response.
Neal Williams, managing director of Priority Freight, said: “I think it’s a little difficult to say at the moment if and how security checks will change.

“In the short term, higher security could be imposed in more of the high risk countries, i.e. possible new checks similar to those of hand luggage for all freight. In the long term it will be more testing for authorities as this type of explosive is very difficult to detect.”