Air Cargo Security

Air Cargo or freight refers to all air-transported cargo except passenger and mail baggage. One can opt for passenger aircraft with belly cargo-carriages or aircraft specifically designed for cargo, that is, dedicated freighters (Banez et al., 2019). Man has always desired to protect his life and any resource that perpetuates this state. Security carries several definitions, but in this case, it is a state whereby cargo is safe from harm or theft, or loss. The paper aims to explore the concept of security in air cargo operations.

The issue of cargo security has greatly evolved. Initially, theft was the main concern in air cargo security. But a review of its legal provisions in September of 2001 added issues likes protection of the aircraft and anti-terrorist measures. This is associated with the happenings of September 2001, that is, ‘9/11’ when the Twin Towers and Pentagon were attacked. The US would thus incur $67 billion in damages (Luca, 2020). Thus, the US began an anti-terrorist campaign and this extended to Air Cargo security measures.

            Furthermore, it was also seen that four-commercial aircraft were hijacked by 19 terrorists and intentionally crashed into the two buildings destroying life and property (Barry, 2019). This motivated the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) thus chose to set up security policies and guidelines for airports to follow (Banez et al., 2019). Cargo security gives an important consideration to the theft but this chapter will also explore Federal Regulation Code in Title 49, Chapter XII, subchapter C, and part 1542 which examines airport security.

            But perhaps from an airport management’s point of view, four variables are considered when it comes to cargo security. They include cargo screening, coordinators of airport security, director of federal security, and terrorism threats. Cargo screening is at the sole discretion of the TSA authorized agents while the aircraft organization has the role of offering support, for example, by allowing the TSA to test new technologies on their premises. The most critical elements of cargo screening include perimeter and vehicle security, regulation of airport access by outsiders, badging and response systems in case of security breaches or emergencies.

            The coordinators of airport security play the important role of a connecting link between the airport and the TSA. They have the mandate and authority to take corrective measures upon any violation of air security regulations. According to the TSA regulations they are to be available on a 24-hour basis. Because at times the primary ASC may not be available an assistant ASC may be identified. The airport security coordinators (ASC) collaborate and cooperate with a TSA-appointed director of federal security whose main role is to approve of any substantial changes, procedures, and decisions. The coordination between the airport manager, the director of federal security, and the airport security coordinator is central to getting the best out of the Airport Security Program (ASP) in which any digressions or alterations must be reflected.

The threat posed by terrorism is the fourth basic consideration in airport security. The TSA through the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in respect to air cargo identified two predisposing factors to insecurity. First of all, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) could be disguised as cargo and introduced into passenger aircraft. Secondly, the all-cargo airplanes could be hijacked and used as weapons of mass destruction as seen in the September 2001 or 9/11 attack and the shipping of explosives from Yemen in 2010, disguised as cartridges used in printers (Muscatello, 2019).

            Since the Gulf Wars of 1990 air cargo increased in importance as a major revenue stream for aircraft carriers and airports. Some carriers went on to establish them as separate strategic business units (SBUs) to capitalize on the air cargo demand (Redpath et al., 2017). However, in the aftermath of the September 2001 attack, shipping prohibitions were placed on mail weighing more than 16 Oz, from flying as belly cargo. This meant that only individual mails weighing less than 16 Oz could be carried in passenger planes. This would lead to losses of more than $90 million within a year (Muscatello, 2019). This also affected other smaller supporting businesses like consolidators, customs brokers, freight forwarders, and freighting airlines.

            The passing of the legislation also had other effects like increased use of road trucking, longer turn-around times, and operating costs due to increased security measures. There were also reduced rates due to an increase in available freighting capacities. In other words, the supply of freighting was more increased than the demand and thus the airlines could not command a premium price for customers.

Parties involved in Air Cargo security include the airport, aircraft operators/carriers. The airport takes the role of a landlord and gives the rights to the airline to use the land for their activities. They thus create and control access of the airline to its users or customers. The access control then is of great importance in the creation of the security function. Besides, initially, protection or security concerns were placed on the passenger aircraft but recently security concerns extend to cargo handling facilities to ensure that explosive devices or hijackers do not get into aircraft.

            Access Control has three critical areas which are deterrence of access by unauthorized persons. This is done through the setting up of fences, gates, and surveillance systems (Thai et al., 2020). Second is the detection of unauthorized entry and trespass. Last but not least, the capture or arrest and removal of unauthorized entrants from the site. Airport management must pay special attention to security and cooperate with relevant authorities to ensure their operations are not interfered with which would increase costs.

            Aircraft operators or airlines know from experience that the passenger aircraft is the major terrorism target. Their association with a particular country or political organization makes the aircraft carrier and aircraft a major target. For example, successful airlines like Delta Airlines may be targeted like they were in past times and because the terrorist knows they can command larger ransoms from them (Sellin, n.d.). In addition, the terrorists such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS who are predominantly from the Middle East may target America because of bitterness over the killing of their ring leaders.

            Most notable was the tracking and killing of Osama Bin Laden on 2nd May 2011 by America’s Navy Seals in a military operation dubbed as Operation Neptune Spear (Marwan et al., 2018). This could very easily have angered the terrorist group and made them see the US as a special target of their attacks. Thus it can be concluded that the presence of airlines at airports calls for the need to have security measures at the airports and this is associated with the aftermath of the 9/11 attack.

            Belly carriers/ passenger airlines had greatly reduced commercial flights and cargo belly capacities fell by as much as 27% percent (Muscatello, 2019). This meant that, unlike past times, for every one hundred initial units of cargo, only 73 were used (Muscatello, 2019). The TSA also became stricter on the nature of cargo which led to the diversion to trucking services instead. Aircraft carriers also reduced aircraft size which reduced the operating costs but reduced the belly capacities. Lastly, personal items entered into the passenger section were also greatly reduced. This meant more baggage went into the belly and ate up more freight/mail space.

            The reduced belly capacities benefitted the freight operators the most. For example, ships and trucks. The lower stringency of security laws enables them to capture a larger market share. However, due to the limitless number of origins of goods, it might be difficult and time-consuming to win confidence with shipping points at the international level. Even unilateral standards at a global level may deem inapplicable due to impracticality and political disparities across national borders.

            Indirect air carriers (IACs) arrange for the air transportation of other people’s goods. They take up the role of middlemen in the value chain and examine cargo integrity to ensure safe shipment. They number over 5,000 in the US and are regulated by the TSA through official approvals that match their security programs (Muscatello, 2019). Shippers are understood to be individuals or entities that bring cargo and arrange for its shipment. They begin the chain of supply in the air cargo sector and can make use of agents like warehouses, whose security standards must equal or surpass the shippers’ requirements. The TSA does not have direct regulation over shippers but they have regulated guidelines as stipulated by air carriers.

            These shippers may be known or unknown. The latter is subject to more stringent security measures because unlike them, the known shipper is has built trust with the airline and cannot be suspected to be an accomplice for terrorist attacks or theft, for example. Unsurprisingly, cargo by unknown shippers is not allowed on-board the belly of passenger aircraft.

            Trucking companies and couriers are indirectly regulated by security programs set up air carriers or IACs. They often act as agents of the latter, who are the principals, and both are held responsible for the breach of security measures. That said, new security measures will mean greater costs of cargo processing, separate screening facilities, and longer turnaround times. Besides, aircraft carriers/airlines may have to set up complex and expensive physical facilities to cater for trucking and courier operations including, truck inspection holds and queuing space. The situation gets more complex in the case of international airports where trucks may arrive in their hundreds and woe to the airports if they do not have adequate space to spare.

            The above parties are well-regulated but in the aftermath of 9/11, the 49 CFR 1540 (Part 1540) statute was added and extended to all individuals or organizations involved in any aviation-related activities. For example, sections 105 and 103 of Part 1540, respectively prohibit fraudulent cargo documentation and interference with or avoidance of requisite aviation security measures. The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) main roles are aviation screening services and the formulation of security measures, in this case, in air cargo security. Besides, it also created bomb detection squads and K-9 units to enhance security.

            Furthermore, the TSA has also set a strong research and development organization for the development of better cargos screening technologies along with training on firearm use by pilots within the cockpit. It also maintains a cadre of personnel who maintain surface transportation facilities e.g., rails. It even carries out regular inspection of security standards at foreign and domestic airports. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is not a strict regulatory aviator body but passes recommendations on security practice to members through recommendations like No. 1630 (Muscatello, 2019). In addition, the United States Postal Services (USPS) in conjunction with TSA sets up carrier regulations. For example, it is illegal to load unattended mail packages exceeding a certain size.

The General Regulatory/Statutory Schemes

            The TSA is the primary regulator of aviation security and under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It was legally brought into effect following the 9/11 attacks through the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 (ATSA) (Muscatello, 2019). It gets its regulatory power from Title 49 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which engenders transportation laws, particularly, the 1500s subsections. That said, the air cargo regulations by number include 1544 (passenger/large cargo air carriers), 1548 (IACs or air freight forwarders), 1546 (foreign passenger/large cargo air carriers), 1542 (airport requirement), 1540 (individual, separate entity regulation) and 1520 (sensitive security information or SSI). It is required that all entities comply with the approved and established security programs. For example, Airport Security (ASPs) and Aircraft Operator Security programs for airports and airlines, respectively. The security measure details, that are SSIs, are set within these security programs. TSA may also give security directives to deal with heightened threats or civil aviation crises.

Definition of Terms

            The first and second sets are contained in Titles 14 and 49 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and Annex 17 of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), respectively. The US is an ICAO signatory and thus is obliged to adhere to its requirements unless a formal ‘exception’ is filed. According to Title 49 of the U.S. CFR, common terms include Air Operation Area (an airport’s physical operation area as specified in its security program), Airport Security Program (a TSA-approved security program under the regulation of Title 49 of CFR (1542)) and Airport Tenant (organization (s) that conducts business (airlines) with the airport operators’ permission).

            Other terms include Airport Tenant Security Program, cargo, Exclusive Area Agreement, Secured Area, Sterile Area, and Security Identification Display Area (SIDA). ICAO’s jargon includes Airside, which is the airports’ aircraft movement area, adjacent terrain or buildings/facilities, and Regulated Agent, which is an agent which works with an operator within stipulated aviation regulations. Other terms by ICAO are security control and screening and security restricted area e.g., cargo, mail centers, ramps, among others.

            ICAO also has 5 standards and 1 practice recommendation. The standards include prior security control engagement on mail and cargo loaded into passenger aircraft, protection of mail from unauthorized interference, processional regulated agent approval, rejection of uninspected cargo and careering, supplies and stores’ security controls on passenger planes/ preloading protection. Airport security can be found in part 1542 of Title 49s CFR. The TSA issues and enforces these regulations. Subsection 111 of the part allows the airport to delegate responsibility to an air/foreign carrier on non-air carriers through Exclusive Area Agreement (EAA) and Airport Tenant Security Program, respectively.

            Subpart C (Operations) calls for the establishment of a secured area if aircraft carriage exceeds 61 passengers. This secured area must include security systems according to subsection 205 of 1542. Subsections 201 and 207 address access control which as previously discussed is an important element of security. Subsection 209 talks about the review of criminal records before access is given and how all this ought to be done. Other subsections like 211 and 213 address identification systems and how to handle the breach of ID badges.

 Non-regulatory cargo security practices cut across employees, non-employees, and equipment or facilities. For example, security detail should be separated for respective facilities or buildings, prohibiting the parking of private vehicles within the premises such as loading areas and creation of vaults for precious goods. To ensure easy adherence to security standards the set-up of infrastructure must consider factors like landside/airside demarcation, enclosure (fencing/gates), landside access, and cargo screening designs.

            Certified cargo screening facilities (CCSF) help to push down costs by allowing direct cargo inspection and loading instead of using tracks between separate inspection and loading areas. The specific screening technologies are regulated by the government through TSA but screening is the airport operators’ duty. They include High-Energy x-rays, TSA-certified Explosive Detection Systems (EDS), X-Ray Diffraction Technology, Gamma Ray Technology, and Pulsed Fast Neutron Technology (Muscatello, 2019).

Conclusively, for in-depth knowledge on the inner sanctums of air cargo security operations, one should ask questions like where an airport’s air cargo operations are located. Other questions are: how does cargo get into the aircraft? What Role does the Airport Play in Employee Badging? And finally, How Should the Airport Respond to a Security Breach? It pays to just be curious and thus knowledgeable on how things work, even in areas far beyond one’s specialty.


Banez, C. D., Lyall, A., Walton, O. R. (2019). Air freight – historical perspective, industry background, and key trends. In Schreiber, B. (Eds.), Air cargo guide. Airports Council International.

Luca, D. M. (2020). The Global Economic Impact of Terrorism. European Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies6(3), 16-25.

Marwan, A. H., & Wadood, M. A. (2018). Pakistani TV channels and their field strategy in covering the Osama bin Laden’s death. Dialogue (Pakistan)13(3).

Muscatello, D. (2019). Security. In Schreiber, B. (Eds.), Air cargo guide. Airports Council International.

Redpath, N., O’Connell, J. F., & Warnock-Smith, D. (2017). The strategic impact of airline group diversification: The cases of Emirates and Lufthansa. Journal of Air Transport Management64, 121-138.

Sellin, C. L. (n.d.). China: The Post-Afghanistan US adversary in South Asia.

Thai, P., Alam, S., Lilith, N., Tran, P. N., & Thanh, B. N. (2020). Deep4Air: A novel deep learning framework for airport airside surveillance. arXiv preprint arXiv:2010.00806.

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