Bomb Plot Prompts Increased Aircraft Security Screening

Despite the recent success at finding the bombs, detecting such devices remains a challenge.
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Airline passengers can expect increased security screening because of the recent foiled bomb plots, say statements from federal agencies and officials, but despite the success at finding the bombs, detecting such devices—especially from foreign points of origin—remains a challenge.

The mail bombs—which originated in Yemen and were being shipped to targets in the United States—were discovered Oct. 29. Those devices are likely not the only packages containing bombs that are being sent via international shipping companies, said a top counterterrorism official in the Obama Administration.

Authorities "have to presume" there might be more potential mail bombs like the ones pulled from planes in England and the United Arab Emirates, said deputy national security adviser John Brennan, during appearances on Sunday talk shows like NBC's "Meet the Press". "We're trying to get a better handle on what else may be out there," Brennan added.

A written statement by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says it “has taken a number of steps to enhance security” and has “heightened cargo screening” at airports. However, “passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams and pat downs, among others.” DHS also asks the public “to remain vigilant, and report suspicious activity to local law enforcement."

However, while a Transportation Security Administration (TSA)—the DHS agency that oversees airline security—statement on the bomb plot does not detail any enhanced cargo screening procedures, a statement on “new pat-down procedures” for passengers says the pat downs are an “important tool” to help TSA detect hidden and dangerous items such as explosives. In addition, “passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams, among others.”

While the TSA did not specifically address increased airline cargo screening, as of Aug. 1, the agency now requires that 100 percent of cargo shipped on passenger aircraft be checked. All cargo on domestic passenger flights is now screened with X-ray systems, explosive detection systems, explosives trace detection, canine searches, physical searches and other approved methods.

To further increase cargo security, known shippers have specific security requirements that must be followed, TSA says. In support of that goal, a “Certified Cargo Screening Program” that seeks to screen more packages outside the airport, and allows cargo to be checked before being delivered to an air carrier, has been implement.

However, it is difficult to secure cargo from international passenger flights, says a DHS report issued in September. Currently more than 75 percent of all required screening is being done, leaving 25 percent, according to the report. In addition, since August, U.S. officials have been pressing the European Union to require every package placed on passenger planes be X-rayed, but there has been resistance to that plan because of the cost and logistics involved in screening such a huge amount of material.

In addition, X-ray machines are not an effective tool to screen bulk cargo because of the large size and number of the items that need to be inspected. Because of that, shipping companies like DHL, FedEx and UPS use several layers of security.