WASHINGTON — A shipping clerk's bizarre trip halfway across the country in a crate aboard a cargo plane exposed holes in aviation security never addressed by the high-profile security upgrades for passenger air travel made since Sept. 11, 2001.
In fact, little about air cargo has changed since the terrorist attacks two years ago, a fact critics were quick to jump on Wednesday as the clerk's trip gained nationwide publicity.
Unlike commercial aircraft, no air marshals fly aboard cargo planes, most of which lack bulletproof cockpit doors. Some don't even have doors. Not all shipping and freight employees are subject to background checks, as are commercial airline employees with access to sensitive areas of airports. Airport areas where cargo is handled are not as secure as passenger terminals.
And while every passenger and piece of luggage goes through security checks, only spot checks are made of goods shipped aboard cargo planes.
"Despite the progress made in passenger and baggage safety, air cargo flies virtually unchecked in our skies," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, a member of the committee that oversees aviation.
Congress is focusing new attention on cargo security because of the recent trip taken by James McKinley, the clerk who had himself shipped in a crate on a cargo plane from Newark, N.J. to Dallas.
Before climbing into a box last Friday, according to the FBI, he filled out shipping instructions saying the crate held a computer and clothes. He then was loaded onto a truck at New York's Kennedy Airport and driven to Newark, where he was loaded onto a plane operated by Kitty Hawk Cargo. The plane stopped in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and the carrier's hub in Fort Wayne, Ind., before arriving in Dallas, the FBI said.
Authorities believe McKinley had help in loading himself in the box from at least one co-worker at the warehouse where he works in New York.
McKinley's escapade showed the vulnerability of the cargo system, critics say. Had he been a trained terrorist with weapons hidden in the crate, McKinley might have been able to commandeer the plane and crash it into a building just as the Sept. 11 hijackers did.
"He could have walked up to the front of the aircraft and done bodily harm and commandeered that plane, I have no doubt in my mind," said Capt. James Shilling, spokesman for the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, which represents five major airlines including UPS and Airborne Express. "Thank God he was just a crazy kid and not a terrorist."
Shilling, a cargo pilot, flies in and out of what he calls "the dark side of airports."
Airport lighting in cargo areas sometimes consists of a Coleman generator with a light stand on it, he said. There may be a chain link fence with a lock. There may or may not be a guard.
"What good is it if you lock your front door and leave your back door open?" Shilling said.
The General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, reported Tuesday that theft is a major problem in air cargo shipping, "signifying that unauthorized personnel may still be gaining access to air cargo shipments," the report said.
Brian Turmail, Transportation Security Administration spokesman, said the agency is working to better protect airport perimeters, finding out more about what's being shipped and getting voluntary agreements from shippers to conduct background checks on their employees.
"We're heading in the right direction," he said. "We've got a lot of work to do."
He said government inspectors are examining security procedures at the nation's 44 cargo airports.
Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., is sponsoring legislation calling for the arming of cargo pilots. Commercial pilots who volunteer and receive training are allowed to carry weapons but cargo companies successfully fought against adding their pilots when Congress considered the issue.
"You've got to have some kind of last resort," Bunning said.
Another concern are the packages and mail shipped aboard passenger planes. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., is sponsoring a bill to require all such cargo to be screened and inspected before being loaded onto passenger planes.
"If you're wearing a dress and heels, you'll get searched," he said. "If you're wearing a box like Charles McKinley, neither you nor the box will get searched."
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