Industry leaders warn against overreaction on air freight security | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 03.11.2010
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Industry leaders warn against overreaction on air freight security

As air cargo security is tightened around Europe, German industry leaders warn that expensive checks on freight would damage world trade. Total security is simply a politician's fantasy, they say.

Freight at Cologne-Bonn airport

Industry leaders say total security is a politicians' fantasy

The pressure was on the German government when it was revealed Sunday that a US-bound bomb discovered on a cargo plane in London had passed through Germany's Cologne Bonn airport.

All flights - first cargo, then passenger services – from the bomb's country of origin, Yemen, were suspended. Interior Minister Thomas De Maiziere was quick to announce that investigations would follow. "Air freight has been relatively under-monitored up to now. Evidently they recognized that and exploited it. This means changes for the air freight business."

Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer echoed his colleague and underlined the swiftness of the government's measures. "Our security measures are meant to guarantee that no freight will get to Germany from Yemen," he said. "Now possible gaps in the air freight security system have to be uncovered and closed."

Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer

Ramsauer said security gaps need to be uncovered and closed

Time is money

But German industry leaders are worried that the government may be lining up knee-jerk security measures that could prove costly.

"The safety checks are becoming more bureaucratic and cumbersome. That costs time, and time is money," Axel Nitschke, export economy chief at the German Association of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK), told the Handelsblatt newspaper

Dierk Mueller, general manager of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany, told Deutsche Welle that talk of extra checks was little more than a security blanket for politicians eager to cover their backs. The US government has already passed a law stating that all cargo containers entering the US by sea or air have to be scanned, but this is a task that thwarts all logistics.

"This law is already in place, but not implemented," Mueller said. "The US government said we must postpone implementation until we know how to do it. Even if you have all the money in the world, no-one knows how to do it. There is just no 100 percent security."

Physically impossible

The technological obstacles are practically insurmountable. "Air freight is a little easier. The containers are smaller, but still, you have to do X-raying and computer tomography, because x-raying can't detect certain types of plastic explosives. Even that would cost enormous amounts of money."

"And then you have to tell where these things come from," he added. "Even if all the major western hemisphere countries say, 'We have 100 percent safety procedures', they would still need all the paperwork – stamps and stamps and papers and papers – there is no way to do it 100 percent. You always have some countries not participating."

The German government has already admitted as much. Jan Muecke, the parliamentary state secretary in the Federal Ministry of Transportation, said Monday: "It is practically impossible to scan the entire freight, given the current quantity."

Even if the logistical and technological problems could be surmounted, Mueller believes that tightening security will always damage the economy.

An armed police officer stands guard next to a passenger

Authorities fear terrorists have found a gap in airport security

"The governments will never pay this. The consumer will always pay for the extra costs," he said. "And it's not just a matter of money, it's also the delay. Spare parts for airplanes or special machines sometimes have to be delivered in a few hours."

"The delay will mean a lack of quality, a lack of punctuality, lack of efficiency, so it will be detrimental to the world economy in the end."

Practical solutions

Mueller believes that, as with the illegal drugs trade, the only practical solution is to infiltrate the criminal organizations themselves.

"If all this worked, we would not have illegal drugs going to the US," he said. "But we have hundreds of tons being illegally imported to the US every year. These things cannot be prevented from entering the country. We can do something to control the mafia and the terrorists, but not the product itself."

In Germany, federal police under the authority of the Interior Ministry are responsible for searching passengers, but security for cargo planes comes under the remit of the Transport Ministry, through the Federal Agency of Aviation (LBA). Cargo companies like the German DHL also carry out their own security checks.

A German customs officer scans a truck

Scanning freight is time-consuming and expensive

"Of course, to protect against dangers, we have to ensure that safety comes first," DIHK boss Martin Wansleben told Deutsche Welle. "The minute check of every single delivery at the airport has technical and organizational limits. That is why it is so important that a secure chain of delivery is introduced, with complete supervision from the dispatcher to the airport."

To achieve this, Wansleben believes that existing European Union regulations need to be better implemented. "The EU's prescribed certification of known dispatchers and regulated commissioners should finally be introduced by the Federal Agency of Aviation," he said.

"In terms of value, around 35-40 percent of international trade is processed through air freight," Wansleben added. "These are particularly valuable, urgent, or fragile goods. That means any interference in air freight will lead to significant costs."

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Sam Edmonds

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