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Dangerous airline cargo making skies unfriendly

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Despite warnings about the threat of terrorist attacks, airlines and courier services aren't following required security procedures designed to detect dangerous cargo, a government report found.

Security is so lax that 10 packages wrapped in plastic and loaded with 50 pounds each of pesticide slipped by airline personnel undetected in Miami three months ago and weren't discovered until one burst as it was being loaded onto a plane, the Federal Aviation Administration report said."The current level of compliance with approved security procedures was unacceptably low," the Department of Transportation's inspector general said after the FAA conducted its own inspection of airlines and courier services in New York and Miami in the aftermath of the incident.

In response to the findings, Bruce Butterworth, the FAA's director of civil aviation security operations, issued a strict warning to airlines and courier services that transport cargo or baggage on airlines for customers.

Butterworth also informed the airline industry in a November meeting that the FAA was considering new security procedures, according to a report obtained by the Associated Press. The report was signed by FAA Administrator Jane Garvey and Transportation Inspector General Kenneth Mead.

"We ran a number of tests and were not fully satisfied with procedures being followed for accepting cargo," FAA spokesman Eliot Brenner said Wednesday. "Everyone involved has now been notified and is aware of the correct procedures."

Representatives of the airlines' trade group, the Air Transport Association, declined comment Wednesday.

But terrorism expert Brian Jenkins, a member of a presidential commission formed after the July 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, said the findings highlighted the panel's concern about cargo shipments.

"It is a great source of concern when any of these procedures are not being followed," Jenkins said in an interview. "One is always going to find a violation here or there, but an indication that ignoring the rules is widespread practice is shocking and deplorable."

The Justice Department is investigating the Miami incident involving American Airlines, according to FAA officials. American Airlines officials did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment.

The pesticide in question, Dowacide A Antimicrobial, when exposed to air releases fumes that can cause eye damage and burning in the lungs. It is considered highly dangerous and corrosive. Trying to check the pesticide as excess baggage would save the company money over shipping it as hazardous cargo.

Cargo shipments already have proven deadly. In May 1996, a ValuJet plane crashed in the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 people on board. Investigators believe poorly packaged oxygen canisters ignited or fueled a fire that caused the crash. A year later, seven oxygen generators were shipped aboard a Continental Airlines flight in violation of rules imposed after the ValuJet crash. The canisters had not been listed as part of the shipment.

FAA rules that have been in effect for years require air cargo companies and courier services, which deliver packages to the commercial airlines for shipment, to certify that bags or packages don't contain any explosives or hazardous materials. Airlines also are required to demand to see the documentation before loading the cargo.

More stringent security procedures, including inspections, are required for first-time customers of the cargo companies.

Another round of inspections are to be held this month "due to the unacceptable level of compliance," the inspector general said. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater was expected to make the announcement today.

The FAA said it was considering additional procedures that would require couriers who carry luggage or cargo onto planes to identify themselves as such and prohibit such couriers from trying to declare cargo as checked baggage.

The problem of unscreened cargo attracted the attention of the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism, formed after a terrorist bomb destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland in December 1988.