Volcanic Eruption in Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland

Flights in Europe are grounded as people wait for the ash from the recent eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano to settle out of the air.  Europeans are being warned that they may face shortages in fruits and vegetables, as shipments, brought in by air, have not been able to arrive.  These shortages should serve as a wake-up call for the U.S. as it moves forward with 100% percent air cargo screening mandates this summer.

Much like Europe, the U.S. relies heavily on a “just in time” supply chain to receive its own perishable goods and other products.  “Just in time” means that items like fruits and vegetables are shipped at the last minute and delivered quickly to maintain their freshness. Any problems in this system can equate to millions of dollars in lost revenue.  On August 3, 2010, however, Congress will require TSA to begin screening 100% of air cargo, from both international and domestic destinations before it can be placed in the belly of an airplane.  This means the piece level scanning of each item—requiring that each pallet be broken down and then reassembled again.  Besides the time that this screening would take—any problems in the system, from a hiccup in the screening process to an unforeseeable delay like this volcano would have an immeasurable impact on U.S. goods and supplies.

Making the situation more daunting is that the statute requires international goods to be screened as well. This is fine and dandy on paper, but is different in practice, where the U.S. must negotiate with foreign operators to do this screening—else TSA may be required to stop their goods from coming to the United States.  Industry members have requested flexibility in meeting the mandate including participation in a program that allows shippers to voluntarily apply for certification by TSA to screen their cargo at their own facilities before transporting it to the air carriers.  However, this system has received a cool reception on Capitol Hill.

Undoubtedly, there is a need to be safe from terrorism—but screening all goods, regardless of the risk-posed by the cargo, does not add much in terms of additional security to the process. Couple the lack of security with the cantankerous insistence by some members of Congress that TSA is limited in its ability to give the private sector flexibility to meet the mandate, and you have a real mess. The volcanic ash will dissipate, and the wheels of the European air supply chain will spin again, but will Congress wake-up and realize its coming screening disaster?