Air cargo overhaul needed to protect passengers: experts

1st November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Air cargo security faces a huge shake-up after it emerged that a US-bound parcel bomb travelled on a passenger jet, experts and industry figures said Monday, while warning of an impact on global trade.

Qatar Airways said on Sunday that a package containing explosives in a suspected Al-Qaeda plot was flown from Yemen to Dubai via Doha on a passenger plane -- not a cargo flight as previously thought.

"That has really put the cat among the pigeons. It poses serious questions about the safety of air freight itself," aviation expert Chris Yates told AFP.

The discovery of the parcel bomb in Dubai and another on a cargo plane in Britain on Friday -- both addressed to synagogues in Chicago and containing the hard-to-detect explosive PETN -- sparked an international security alert.

The devices raised new questions about the safety of air cargo, as Western authorities have mainly focused on dangers to passenger jets following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

But the news that at least one of the packages also made part of its journey on a passenger jet, potentially putting hundreds of lives at risk, added a fresh level of complication about how to deal with the problem.

Yates said new security measures should include targeting countries where there is a threat as well as more scanning, despite a possible impact on aviation and on global trade itself from the disruption.

"One of the ways to deal with this cargo threat is to know the risk areas -- so you do full-on screening of anything coming from Yemen but also Saudi, Dubai, Qatar and other countries where there is strife, for example Pakistan," said Yates, security editor at Jane's Aviation.

European Union countries would also face serious pressure from the United States to get in line with far tougher US regulations on incoming air cargo, he added.

Germany on Monday decided to step up its emergency measures and extend a ban on air freight from Yemen to also cover passenger flights which originated in the Arabian peninsula country.

Shortly after the discovery of the bombs, Britain banned all freight from Yemen from coming into the country, including in transit. On Saturday, France took similar measures to suspend air freight from Yemen.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was chairing an emergency meeting Monday to discuss the plot. His spokesman said the government was in "close contact" with the industry over a planned review of cargo screening.

Asked about previous warnings about cargo security being a weak link, the spokesman said: "All threats are obviously taken seriously and we keep all these matters under review at all times."

However Michael O'Leary, the boss of low-cost airline Ryanair, said "ludicrous and useless" airport security measures for passengers should be dropped despite the Yemen bomb plot.

"We in the aviation industry are all for effective security measures such as taking knives off passengers, but we are all opposed to ludicrous and ineffective measures," he said.

Peter Quantrill, director general of the British International Freight Association, said members were "constantly looking at the screening of freight and the processes that they use."

But he warned of economic disruption from harsher checks.

He said he was pleased the British government had acknowledged "the massive economic and financial implications of much tighter international air cargo security rules, and has stopped short of saying that a much more rigorous system of checks was being planned either unilaterally or globally".

A British pilots' union, BALPA, said it had been warning for some time about the threat posed by cargo planes and backed earlier complaints from airline chiefs that some airport passenger checks were redundant.

© 2010 AFP

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