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Paucity of Cargo Flight Rules Pose Serious Security Problem

By Greg Schneider

The Washington Post


The new airport security law that sets strict guidelines for screening passengers and their luggage does not impose similar requirements on air cargo, prompting pilots to warn of a potential weak link in the system.

Freight and mail is carried in the belly of most passenger planes and should get the same amount of scrutiny as checked baggage, say pilots and aviation experts. In addition, they say that all-cargo planes, full of boxes instead of passengers, should step up security.

"There's usually a minimum amount of security around cargo operations because of the historically low amount of potential for terror," said Capt. Steve Luckey of the Air Line Pilots Association. It was always assumed that terrorists were only interested in striking passenger planes to take hostages.

But the attacks of Sept. 11, in which planes were used as missiles, showed that a cargo plane "has the same potential to create damage as one full of people does, said Luckey, a Northwest Airlines pilot who chairs the national security committee of the pilots association. The association has raised the issue with the government and intends to keep pursuing it, he added.

The Transportation Security Administration, created by Congress to set up the new security system, acknowledged that air cargo is not getting top priority now, as officials race to meet deadlines for screening passengers and their luggage.

Most passenger planes carry cargo in whatever space is not occupied by luggage. Some 60 percent of all U.S. air cargo flies on passenger planes, but no more than 4 percent of cargo is currently screened for dangerous items, according to John Magaw, head of the security agency.

Congress required Magaw's agency to screen all passenger luggage in some fashion earlier this month, and it set a deadline of the end of the year for subjecting the luggage to bomb-scanning machines.