Despite knowing for decades that terrorists could sneak bombs onto planes, the U.S. government failed to close obvious security gaps amid pressure from shipping companies fearful tighter controls would cost too much and delay deliveries.
Intelligence officials around the world narrowly thwarted an al-Qaeda mail bomb plot last month, intercepting two explosive packages shipped from Yemen with UPS and FedEx.
But it was a tip from Saudi intelligence, not cargo screening, that turned up the bombs before they could take down airplanes. Company employees in Yemen were not required to X-ray the printer cartridges the explosives were hidden inside. Instead, they looked at the printers and sent them off, U.S. officials said.
The scare is prompting officials in Washington and around the world to rethink air cargo security. On Monday the Obama administration announced new cargo rules banning freight out of Yemen and Somalia. It also restricted the shipment of printer and toner cartridges weighing more than a pound on all passenger flights and some cargo flights. Overall cargo security rules were unchanged.
Lobbying by the multibillion-dollar freight industry has helped kill past efforts to impose tough rules.
In 2004, when the Transportation Security Administration considered requiring screening for all packages on all flights, the Cargo Airline Association downplayed a terrorist threat. It argued slowing down shipping for inspections would jeopardize the shipping industry and the world's economy.
"As a practical matter, all-cargo aircraft operators today are permitted to accept freight from all persons and entities all over the world, including unknown shippers, precisely because of the lack of any credible threat to all-cargo aircraft," the association, whose members included FedEx, UPS and other shippers, told the agency.
The government agreed.
"TSA believes that a requirement to inspect every piece of cargo could result in an unworkable cost of more than $650-million" in the first year, the agency wrote in 2004. The government wanted security, TSA said, "without undue hardship on the affected stakeholders."
The U.S. requires all packages be screened before being loaded onto passenger flights originating in the U.S. But there's no such requirement enforced for all cargo loaded onto U.S.-bound international passenger flights or on cargo-only flights, such as UPS and FedEx planes.
Jetliner bombings in the 1970s and the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 led the U.S. to examine cargo security long before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington made counterterrorism measures a top priority.
Those efforts came in fits and starts. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Postal Service once had such a poor relationship that neither agency carried out their part of a mail security agreement they reached in 1979 after a mail bomb blew up on an American Airlines flight, congressional investigators reported in 1994.
In 2007, a coalition of more than a dozen business groups lobbied against requiring close inspections of packages, arguing in a letter to then-Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, a Democrat, that applying the same rules to passenger baggage and air cargo would set "an unachievable standard."
Only in August, nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks, did the U.S. require that all cargo be screened on U.S. passenger flights. That rule drew heavy lobbying from airlines, air cargo carriers and trade groups. They devoted at least $32-million last year and $28-million so far this year to lobbying in Washington on that and other matters.
The air transportation industry, meanwhile, donated at least $8.3-million to congressional candidates in the 2009-10 election cycle, split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, an analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found.
The TSA, carrying out a 2007 law requiring the screening of all cargo on passenger planes within three years, decided that starting last August it would mandate the screening of cargo on passenger planes loaded in the United States. It said its rule wouldn't apply to cargo placed on U.S.-bound passenger flights overseas, or to cargo-only flights.
In leaving cargo loaded onto passenger flights outside the U.S. from the August requirement, the agency said it would work with other countries to try to standardize screening requirements and apply "risk assessment" to cargo headed for the U.S.
That decision drew praise from the International Air Cargo Association, whose members include FedEx, UPS and other major shippers.
The industry has long contended that requiring the careful inspection of every package would cost too much and take too long. Its companies want to be able to screen items quickly and they want the government to bear as much of the cost as possible.