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TSQ wields a big stick

In early March of this year, Air Canada quietly announced that it was about to shut down its cargo carrying service to the United States. The announcement was distinctly low-key for something with such inherent ramifications on commerce between...


In early March of this year, Air Canada quietly announced that it was about to shut down its cargo carrying service to the United States. The announcement was distinctly low-key for something with such inherent ramifications on commerce between Canada and the US. It came out on a Wednesday and advised that the following Monday was the end date for air cargo shipments to the US.

To suggest that this caused a small ripple in the shipper/carrier/freight forwarder community would be to understate in the extreme. What’s more, no details or explanation were available other than an innocuous statement that air carriers needed to comply with a new directive from the US Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). As it happened, TSA had issued an emergency amendment that was to take place within days to its security measures. The lead time for the notice was too short to allow air carriers to take the necessary steps to comply; leaving them no choice but to embargo all US-bound cargo ‘until further notice.’

TSA forbids anyone from disclosing to the public (read shippers) details of its security directives, which makes some sense, but makes compliance a little difficult.

Here is the text of Air Canada’s announcement, which contained all the explanation they could provide:

“The US Transport Security Administration (TSA) has issued an emergency amendment to security measures which will take effect March 10, 2011. Given the short notice, it will not be possible for us to implement the necessary measures to ensure compliance and as a result, we are required to embargo all cargo flown to the US effective March 10, 2011 until further notice. Shipments already accepted prior to this date will be carried to destination. Discussions continue with TSA as well as other country security agencies to find ways to mitigate this situation as quickly as possible.”

Then, on March 11, Air Canada informed its customers that the embargo had been lifted and it was now all systems go. That announcement read as follows:

“We (Air Canada) have been in contact with the TSA and are pleased to advise you that we fully resume our cargo operations while maintaining a heightened level of security as required by these new measures…We apologize for the inconvenience caused to our customers and are very pleased to have arrived at a rapid resolution.”

TSA wields a big stick. Its security directives apply to US aircraft operators, US all-cargo aircraft operators, foreign air carriers, and foreign all-cargo air carriers operating to the United States. In its bulletin dated March 10, TSA advised that:

“Freight forwarders with air cargo operations at NON-US LOCATIONS should expect to see revised requirements for all shipments inbound to the US. US aircraft operators, US all-cargo aircraft operators, foreign air carriers, and foreign all-cargo air carriers will be requesting information for all shipments on each master airwaybill (MAWB) that they accept for transportation from a NON-US LOCATION to the US. This information will include a specific statement (that the aircraft operator will provide to forwarders) regarding each shipper. This information will include shipper account history, and is necessary for an aircraft operator to determine what security measures they must apply in accordance with their Security Directive or Emergency Amendment.

“By providing this statement, the forwarder is attesting to the accuracy of the information for the shipper. Providing this accurate information to air carriers will expedite the screening process. As always, TSA reminds all IACs (Indirect Air Carriers) to remain vigilant and report suspicious activity to local law enforcement.”

The TSA refused any further comment on the new security directives, which some say have come with little warning for industry. We have no expectation that TSA or any other agency should provide full disclosure of the reasons for these decisions, but this one seemed a little arbitrary for something with such a significant impact.

This is such sensitive ground that few are even willing to discuss what happened or why, or, more specifically, what this new security directive from TSA entails. It’s all very Orwellian in nature. Air carriers are already required to screen all shipments destined for the US that are over a designated size or are not from a ‘known (trusted) shipper.’ More stringent screening is due to kick in by the end of 2011.

That program seems to have worked to date. In fact, we understand that many carriers are far ahead of a scheduled Dec. 31, 2011 date for meeting the new protocol on screening.

Now, in addition to enhanced screening requirements there may be a move afoot to redefine what constitutes a ‘trusted shipper.’ Some of the criteria being proposed could eliminate seasonal or periodic shippers, putting them at a competitive disadvantage. While the March situation was resolved quickly enough, one has to wonder when the next one will occur. Can or will TSA or any other agency, arbitrarily shut down commerce without notice? We may never know what it was that instigated the March episode and that’s disturbing.

This time it was the air cargo sector, but what if we had an overnight shutdown of cross border trucking? The chaos and interruption to commerce would be immeasurable.


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