Across the US and the UK this week, cargo flights have been disrupted by package bombs sent via UPS and FedEx. In this case, the packages were sent from Yemen to a synagogue in Chicago. Like all “parcel post” these days, the packages fly on commercial aircraft, like UPS, FedEx, DHL and any passenger carrier that you care to mention. Air cargo is a big money maker for the airlines and postal cargo is one of those steady, well-paying, easy to move shipments.
In the day you could send a package by Canada Post and be certain it was going by train or truck. Only if you paid a whack of money would your letter or package go via “airmail”, ostensibly being the fastest service available. Internationally, unless you paid airmail rates, your package to Aunt Hazel in Heidelberg went by ship. That’s why we used to have advertisements encouraging us to ship Christmas presents by mid-November to the UK or Europe for assured delivery. Today, almost all of it winds up on an aircraft, unless you’re sending Aunt Hazel a four room apartment full of your anvil collection.
The bombs this time, at least one, was a modified toner cartridge with a circuit board and what is being described as PETN, or plastic explosive to you and me. It wasn’t enough to drop a building, but could easily contain enough to kill several people. Remember the root of “terrorist” is ‘terror’, meaning scare the hell out of folks. Making common objects a source of fear is a textbook definition.
Where the difficulty comes up is how these parcel bombs highlight the holes in our ‘screening’ process. We screen the snot out of passengers and some of their luggage, but fall woefully short on air cargo. Estimates range from 20% to less than 5% of air cargo is actually checked. That would mean that the vast majority of air cargo is flying without so much as a drug dog running over the pile. Scratch that, we’re willing to wager that more cargo is checked for illegal vegetables, dried shrimp or foreign salami by the cute Agri-Hounds. Unless a package is actively smoking, labeled “Death To The Zionist Infidels” with a return address of O. Bin Laden, 4th cave along, 14th Street, Sana’a, Yemen, odds are the package will fly.
The reason so much air cargo goes untouched is twofold. First is the sheer volume of just-in-time air cargo shipping going at prime rates for companies who are willing to pay top dollar to get that box of stuff to their client within 24 hours. All Nippon Airways shipped 34,422 tons of stuff in Japan alone, in May 2010 and when asked what kind of month it was, the spokesman said “Meh, we’ve done better, we’ve done worse.”
The second factor is inconvenience to the airlines. If shipments are delayed by security, shippers are angry, clients are angry and customers are angry, all at the air cargo company, which loses money. There’s that nasty word again; money.
As soon as security costs money, the line forms on the left with consultants, media fart-catchers, spin doctors and experts who come up out of the carpet to decry government regulation that will cost them money, time, effort or unbillable hours involved in thinking. Politicians nod sagely at the hearings and agree to “Let the market decide” which means nothing will happen.
Will terrorists keep trying to mail it in? Of course they will. It is much easier to get someone to call FedEx or UPS than it is to get them a fitting for a suicide vest. That’s a no-brainer for even the most fervent members of terrorist groups.
Our no-brainer in response is to check every package on every flight. Open more than half of them for a hand inspection and reseal the package or envelope with tape that says “Opened by the TSA (or CATSA, or the other official groups) for security inspection: Get over it”