Beginning this August, 100% of cargo bound for passenger planes must be screened before it is loaded. While this looming security deadline is reasonably well known to domestic air cargo companies (and somewhat less well known by thousands of shippers who may be affected), it is hardly known at all outside the United States. That is a problem, because the air cargo screening mandate applies not only to passenger flights within and from the United States, but also to foreign–originating flights to the United States.

Regarding the inbound flights, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has stated that it may take years to ensure that systems are in place to screen all cargo in foreign locations before loading onto US–bound passenger flights. Until that time, unscreened cargo will not be barred from entering the country. But the Department has repeatedly stated that it will fulfill the screening mandate for inbound flights, even if it takes several years past the deadline, and DHS has taken initial steps toward enforcing the mandate for inbound cargo: at the beginning of May, the Department began to insist that a portion of inbound passenger flight cargo must be screened.

DHS has begun working with a few foreign governments, airports, and airlines to establish or confirm the existence of satisfactory government screening systems for inbound passenger flight cargo. And DHS intends to formalize resultant arrangements in government–to–government agreements. These agreements may remove the need for airline–specific screening requirements that are embedded in each airline’s security program.

The Department is also considering whether and how an air cargo risk rating system—in which risk is assessed from data about the shipper, the contents, the recipient, and other factors—might help satisfy the screening mandate. Such a risk rating system might obviate the need for more intrusive screening.

Options for foreign aircraft operators, airports and governments include:

  • Developing cargo screening procedures to satisfy TSA’s airline–specific requirements;
  • Working with DHS to facilitate government–to–government arrangements that remove the need for airline–specific requirements; and
  • Working with DHS to develop a cargo risk rating system that may obviate the need for more intrusive screening.

Sooner (better than later), foreign parties should consider which of these approaches to take.