Parcel Bomb Terror Plot Highlights Cargo Security Shortcomings

Air shipping is governed by a patchwork of inconsistent controls that make packages a potential threat even to passenger jets, experts say.

The discovery of mail bombs bound for Chicago synagogues on cargo planes in England and Dubai reveals the vulnerability of air shipping, which is governed by a patchwork of inconsistent controls that make packages a potential threat even to passenger jets, experts said on Saturday.

Most countries require parcels placed on passenger flights by international shipping companies to go through at least one security check. Methods include hand checks, sniffer dogs, X-ray machines and high-tech devices that can find traces of explosives on paper or cloth swabs.

Police loading cargo at East Midlands Airport Oct. 29, 2010 (Reuters)

But security protocols vary widely around the world. Experts cautioned that cargo, even when loaded onto passenger planes, is sometimes lightly inspected or completely unexamined, particularly when it comes from countries without well-developed aviation security systems.

Shippers from Israel have different security clearances, depending on the level of security applied at the plane, in line with security directives from the relevant authorities.

Companies employing a security officer have a higher security clearance, though some analysts say that is a vulnerability.

The dangers of terrorism via international shipping routes have been obvious for years, analysts said.

Even where rules are tight on paper, enforcement can be lax. A U.S. government team that visited cargo sites around the world last year found a wide range of glaring defects, said John Shingleton, managing director of Handy Shipping Guide, an industry information service.

"Generally security is high, but if you think it's perfect you're kidding yourself," he said.

Cargo that travels through airports in countries with high threat levels and advanced security systems is often safer. The system at London's Heathrow Airport is relatively effective because cargo is held for 24 hours, giving authorities time to check it properly, Shingleton said.

Still, since August U.S. aviation officials have been pressing the European Union to require the X-raying of every package placed on passenger planes, but they have met resistance because of the cost and logistics involved in screening such a huge amount of material, aviation safety consultant Chris Yates said.