Air Cargo Security: Maintaining Product Quality & Preventing Threats

November 19, 2019

Air Cargo Security: Maintaining Product Quality & Preventing Threats

Authors: QProducts & Services Team, Under the Direction of Paul Yadron, Sr. VP of Sales

U.S. air cargo supply chain handles more than 50,000 tons of cargo each day, of which 7,500 (15%) is designated for domestic passenger carriers, and the remaining 85% is designated for all-cargo carriers, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Over the past 3-4 decades, air cargo transport has offered a means by which to expeditiously move cargo from points of production and manufacture to points of distribution and sales.

Major events over the last few decades have led to increased security measures for the air cargo supply chain, while also allowing us to learn about possible additional security threats and how to prevent them. The quick transport of products by air is especially important for perishable goods, as a major benefit of shipping goods by air is timing. So how do we secure these threats, and how do we maintain the quality of our products?

What is Air Cargo Security?

First and foremost, the air cargo industry consists of a complex distribution network linking manufacturers and shippers to freight forwarders, off-airport freight consolidators, and airport sorting and cargo handling facilities where shipments are loaded on and unloaded from an aircraft. Under the Aviation Transport Security Act of 2004, air cargo is defined as goods, other than baggage or stores, that are transported by aircraft. Items shipped by aircraft generally consist of time-sensitive and high-value commodities. Common examples of air cargo include high-value machine parts and manufacturing equipment, electronic components for manufactured goods, consumer electronics, jewelry, and perishable items such as flowers, fruits, fresh fish, and pharmaceuticals.

Air cargo security measures aim to protect cargo from theft, but they also secure cargo against incoming materials such as bombs or drugs. Security is a very critical element of the air cargo supply chain. Regulators, organizations, and the industry overall are working together to further secure the air cargo supply chain while ensuring the flow of commerce.

Maintaining Air Cargo Product Quality


As we discussed, a major benefit to shipping items via air is time. The faster a product can get to its destination, the better. When it comes to food, beverage, and pharmaceuticals, these items cannot last very long in transit as the biggest challenge of keeping perishable products fresh has to do with temperature.  The longer an item stays exposed to high temperatures, the quicker it loses its freshness. We all know that temperature-controlled shipping is critical for delicate materials such as pharmaceuticals, medicines, and food.

For the pharmaceutical industry, the IATA (International Air Transport Association) Time and Temperature Sensitive Label became effective July 1st, 2012. This label ensured the integrity of the time and temperature of sensitive healthcare air cargo shipments and also ensured that the air cargo supply chain is prepared to handle the demands of these healthcare shipments. The overall aim is to ensure patient safety through effective cold chain distribution. Therefore, it is imperative that airlines, ground handling agents, and other stakeholders within the supply chain are familiar with the regulations and appearance of the label. It is also imperative that effective cold chain solutions are put into place to secure the successful air transit of healthcare products.

Unfortunately, one of the main costs with the transportation of perishable items such as fruit and vegetables is wastage due to spoilage related to inadequate temperature management during transit. Keeping perishable food items cool, cold, frozen, or deep frozen is the only way to guarantee product quality and shelf-life as it arrives at the end of a transportation process. Leveraging the proper cold chain equipment such as palletized technology can increase product shelf-life, increase profits, and reduce food loss.

Security Threats to Air Cargo

In the United States, security of air cargo shipments and international shipments to and from the U.S. is regulated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Security threats can impact product integrity and create safety issues in certain markets. Security threats can damage the product altogether, resulting not only in lost product, but additional costs. Historically, security measuring surrounding all-cargo operations have focused on the threat of hijackings, particularly those that could result in using the aircraft as a weapon of mass destruction. According to the Congressional Research Service, a 1994 incident involved an off-duty FedEx flight engineer who attempted to hijack a FedEx DC-10 aircraft and crash it into the company’s Memphis, TN headquarters. At the time, there was no federal requirement to screen personnel or personal baggage carried aboard cargo aircraft. This particular hijack attempt was unsuccessful; however, the threat still remains in the air cargo industry.

Another security threat to air cargo includes the threat of explosives. A long-standing concern for cargo loaded on passenger aircraft, several incidents have shown that U.S. bound air cargo shipments are targeted. For instance, the Congressional Research Service reports that on October 29, 2010, intelligence and law enforcement agencies in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and in the United Kingdom discovered explosive devices concealed in packages shipped as air cargo bound for the United States. Authorities in the U.S. were able to bring down the aircraft; however, the details of this incident highlighted a number of specific challenges to securing air cargo. First, the explosives were difficult to detect using explosive detection equipment and canines. Second, questions were raised regarding the implementation and effectiveness of risk-based targeting methods to identify suspicious cargo. And third, the multiple international airports and air cargo facilities that served as intermediate transfer points illustrated the highly interconnected nature of the international air cargo industry, which necessitates close collaboration and coordination among governments, forwarders, air carriers, and airport operators to address security.

While we don’t want to assume this threat, the “Insider Threat” still presents a threat to air cargo security. While shippers may have limited ability to target a specific aircraft or even predict if an item will move on a passenger aircraft or an all-cargo aircraft, insiders working in the air cargo industry could use their access and knowledge to carry out an attack. The Congressional Research Service states, “Historically, in the United States, air cargo supply chains have been infiltrated by organized criminal elements conducting systematic theft and smuggling operations. Overseas, there is growing concern that terrorist networks could infiltrate airports and air cargo operations to gather information about possible weaknesses and exploit vulnerabilities in the supply chain.”

Lastly, theft is a very real concern in the supply chain, including the air cargo supply chain. While cargo is more vulnerable to theft when hauled by a truck, cargo theft gangs are seeking opportunities to steal cargo from airports as some items shipped by air tend to be high value items. According to Air Cargo Eye, in February 2017, thieves escaped with rare 15th and 16th century antique books valued at more than $2.3 million after they broke into a facility at London’s Heathrow Airport. In March 2017, thieves were seen masquerading as police officers while using what were reported as police vehicles intercepting a cargo of $1.7 million of banknotes shortly after the aircraft had arrived at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport.

Preventing Air Cargo Threats

Whereas the air cargo industry has favored risk-based approaches for both cargo planes and cargo placed aboard passenger aircraft, some policymakers have argued that more comprehensive screening of cargo is needed to make cargo security comparable to the screening of airline passengers and baggage. The 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 required 100% physical screening and inspection of all cargo placed on passenger aircraft. Acceptable screening methods include x-ray systems, explosives detection systems, explosives trace detection, TSA-certified explosives detection canine teams, and physical searches conducted in conjunction with manifest verifications. Cargo documents and known shipper verification are not acceptable screening methods.

While TSA has approved a number of detection systems for screening air cargo to meet the requirements of the 100% screening mandate, none of these devices have been approved for the screening of palletized or containerized cargo. According to the Congressional Research Service, it is estimated that palletized cargo makes up 75% of all cargo carried on passenger planes. The lack of an approved technology for screening pallets leaves the industry dependent on work-around solutions, largely involving the off-airport screening of cargo combined with approved supply-chain security measures to prevent tampering after the item is screened.

In regard to air cargo theft, organizations can take the following actions to help prevent theft in the industry:

  1. Thoroughly screen prospective employees
  2. Carefully select transportation partners and intermediaries
  3. Provide security training within your organization
  4. Incorporate surveillance into the duties of security guards, and have guards patrol away from perimeters
  5. Leverage technology such as equipment tracking, security seals, or locks
  6. Periodically conduct security audits

In addition to the organizations themselves being involved, various supply chain security measures provide options for preventing and detecting tampering while maintaining the integrity of the shipment. These measures include tamper-evident and tamper-resistant packaging, cargo tracking technologies, and identifiers to designate screened cargo.

 Final Thoughts


Today, thousands of products are being delivered by air freight. This service has made it possible for people and organizations around the world to have the goods needed for everyday life. Several industries have been able to grow internationally due to air freight, although there are challenges faced along the way.

The industry still faces the challenge of security threats and how to combat them to ensure the safety of the product and passengers. Technology continues to advance to screen cargo for these threats, and technology advances even further to maintain product quality and safety aboard an aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forecasts that steady U.S. and world economic growth will drive more modest annual increases of about 3% in air cargo shipments over the next two decades. Innovation, education, and due diligence will continue to help the industry combat air cargo security.

As the air cargo supply chain continues to grow, I hope this information was helpful in answering some of your questions regarding air cargo, security, safety, and product quality.