The Security Gaps in Air Freight Can UPS, FedEx and other Logistics Firms Beat the Terrorists?

The package bombs sent by al-Qaida and Greek terrorists reveal embarrassing security gaps in the air freight business. Some say modern imaging technology isn't enough. Besides, many shipments are loaded onto aircraft without undergoing any security screening at all.


By and

Very few passengers ever end up at Gate 32 in the far southeast corner of the Frankfurt airport. The small number of travelers who have taken their dogs to the airport's canine hotel are probably familiar with the gate. "It's right around the corner from here," says Harald Rose.

Rose, the secretary for the Ver.di service union at the airport, is driving his gray family car through the hectic traffic. Delivery vans, large trucks and construction vehicles crowd through the bottleneck at the gate. Their license plates, from countries like Bulgaria, Portugal, Turkey and Finland, are almost as international as the planes thundering through the air above.

Rose knows the people who work here. He calls them "his workers." He spends a lot of time listening to them talk, which is probably why he is so familiar with what goes on behind the scenes at this intercontinental aviation hub.

He swipes his access card through the card reader in front of the barrier. There is no guard at the gate to the area known as Cargo City South. "If I wanted to, I could take an entire busload of people through this gate," says Rose.

If Rose were a terrorist, he would know where to go: to the loading docks where dozens of trucks are maneuvering into position. "Back there," says Rose, a 61-year-old native of Darmstadt near Frankfurt, as he picks up his red signal vest and a thermos.

'Security Is also an Issue Here'

He quickly finds what he is looking for: an aircraft pallet loaded with cargo, tightly lashed down, sitting in front of the office of a logistics company. "It's all ready to be transported to an aircraft," says Rose.

He slips his thermos between the straps surrounding the bulky pallet and whispers conspiratorially: "Now imagine there was something other than coffee in there."

Rose is on a mission. He isn't just fighting for things like fair wages and occupational safety. "Security is also at issue here," he says. The union official has already taken photos here and sent them to politicians, the management and the company that runs the airport. "No one was interested," says Rose.

But now that two package bombs were discovered hidden in ink cartridges in Dubai and Nottingham two weeks ago, he hopes more people will start paying attention to what he has to say. Suddenly, the world has become acutely aware of how vulnerable this lifeline of the global economy has become. "It was pure luck that the bombs didn't explode," says Philip Baum of Green Light, a London-based security consulting firm.

The two pilots of a UPS jumbo jet that took off from Dubai bound for Cologne on Sept. 3 weren't as lucky. A fire broke out on board the aircraft shortly after takeoff. In their last desperate radio message before the plane burst into flames, the pilots complained that the smoke was so thick that they couldn't see anything.

Did al-Qaida detonate a bomb in the cargo hold of that Boeing 747? Until now, the authorities believed that a load of lithium batteries was the probable cause of the fire. And even though Western security experts still have no evidence pointing to an act of terror, al-Qaida's claim of responsibility for both the two package bombs from Yemen and the crash in Dubai sheds a new light on the UPS accident.

An Industry that Prefers Discretion

Another bomb that was discovered last week exposed the dangers of freight traffic even more glaringly than the al-Qaida attacks. A package bomb of conventional design found its way into the mailroom at the German Chancellery, the offices of Chancellor Angela Merkel. The shipment was X-rayed two times in Greece, but no one noticed anything. "A blind person with a white cane" could have noticed the bomb, says an irate senior official in Berlin.

The industry that suddenly finds itself in the spotlight is one that prefers to function as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. The fact that most fish bound for Germany arrive at the Frankfurt Airport is communicated with equal discretion as the curious factoid that entire locomotives are transported by air to the United States.

When the air freight industry comes under criticism, it's usually because of nighttime aircraft noise or engine fumes. Last year about 3 million tons of freight were transported through the air in Germany, with about half of it flying as cargo in the holds of passenger aircraft. Without such cargo, airlines would not be able to survive on the slim margins they make on low-cost tickets.

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