Switzerland has joined calls for a coordinated review of air freight security after recent attempted parcel bomb attacks targeted United States and European targets.
Last week, two powerful bombs sent from Yemen were discovered on aircraft in Dubai and Britain. Greece suspended international airmail for 48 hours after a plot to send explosive devices to European leaders was uncovered on Tuesday.
“Nobody is surprised as this was an incident waiting to happen. Cargo was always the weak spot in air transport as regards security as it’s difficult to check,” Swiss aviation expert Sepp Moser told swissinfo.ch.
“In a passenger plane you have 350 people to check but maybe 10-20,000 parcels in a dedicated cargo 747. You simply cannot check all the freight.”
The latest use of air transport by terrorist groups has highlighted security weaknesses and exposed the patchwork of regulations employed by different countries around the world.
The Swiss Federal Civil Aviation Office (Foca) has stepped up security at Swiss airports on all air freight arriving from Yemen.
Britain, the Netherlands and Germany reacted to the attempted attacks by banning cargo flights from Yemen. Germany stopped both cargo and passenger flights while Britain has also outlawed print toner cartridges weighing more than 500 grams in hand luggage. The two bombs were placed in toner cartridges.
The United States said it would introduce a range of measures to ramp up security on air cargo from so-called “hotbed” countries while requiring more information from freight companies on shipments in future.
The fragmented approach has led to the International Air Transport Association to warn against “knee jerk” reactions. European bomb detection experts will gather on Friday ahead of a meeting of European Union interior minister next week.
A unified global approach to air freight security is not before time, according to the Joint Air Transportation Competence Centre for Security (JATCC). The recently formed body was set up this year by St Gallen University and counterparts in Berlin and the US specifically to look into such issues as air freight security.
“There has never been any attempt to set up international minimum standards for air freight security,” Joachim Ehrenthal of St Gallen University told swissinfo.ch. “We have a situation where freight shippers are trying to comply with a range of regulations that are triggered by specific events rather than a coordinated system that properly measures risk.”
No minimum standard
The mess of uncoordinated security standards, and even equipment, could easily have contributed to the two Yemen bombs getting into the system, he added. Even within Europe, different countries have security scanners set to different calibrations.
Ehrenthal was also unimpressed by the decision of some countries to ban direct flights from Yemen as parcels can pass through several countries before reaching their destination.
“The solution is for political decision makers to get together and agree to minimum standards of enforceable security that would replace the current system of bilateral agreements,” Ehrenthal said.
There is currently no single global agency that oversees air cargo security, with some freight companies authorised to carry out their own screening. The problems is also exacerbated by police checking passengers and other agencies dealing with cargo despite both often ending up on the same aircraft.
And the vast array of different cargo items also requires different security measures. Machine parts, human organs, consumer goods, cars and laboratory equipment require different screening methods.
“We have to be intelligent about what we are trying to detect and how we do that,” Ehrenthal said.
No “magic” machine
Even finding the best technology to detect security problems is not straightforward with so many models floating around.
“Every time there is a crisis we get an incredible number of calls from lobby groups all trying to sell the best possible detection machine,” Geneva airport spokesman Bertrand Stämpfli told swissinfo.ch. “Everyone is suspicious of ‘the magic detection machine’”.
Getting air freight security right is only one piece of the logistics jigsaw, experts agree.
“If all the freight is checked thoroughly you can always walk into a railway station with a bag full of explosives and board a train to anywhere and let them off,” said Sepp Moser. “There is no absolute security and it can never be achieved. The same applies to shipping and trucking.”
Parcel bomb threat
European bomb detection experts will meet on Friday to examine whether Europe needs to step up air cargo security measures following parcel bomb plots in Greece and Yemen.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Wednesday for better freight security coordination after a parcel bomb from Greece was seized at her office and two US-bound parcel bombs were sent to the US from Yemen.
The bombs from Yemen have been blamed on al Qaeda, while those originating in Greece have been blamed on leftists.
The two US-bound parcel bombs containing the lethal explosive PETN packed into computer printer cartridges and addressed to synagogues in Chicago were found in Dubai and Britain.
The bomb found in Britain had passed through Germany en route.
The British, German, French and United States governments stopped all air freight from Yemen after the discovery of the two bombs.
The Swiss Federal Civil Aviation Office has said that it will run additional checks on all freight from Yemen at Swiss airports.
Swiss air freight
Air freight covers one-third of the SFr180 billion worth of total Swiss exports (air, train, road combined, according to Swiss customs).
Switzerland’s three busiest airports - Zurich, Basel and Geneva – employed 2,350 people to move 500,000 tonnes of freight and mail in 2008.
The industry directly employs 25,000 people in Switzerland and another 163,000 indirect positions. As almost all air freight is carried on passenger planes, the industry warns that such flights would also become unprofitable if logistics suffer.
The air freight report lists Switzerland’s strengths as the ability to move goods at speed, the expertise and flexibility of handling agents and the ability to move goods at short notice.
Weaknesses to be addressed include: the lack of direct flights and frequency of flights compared to European neighbours, inflexible opening hours of customs offices and a paucity of specialised freight aircraft.