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Travel Health & Safety Blog

Air Cargo Safety: Screening & Supply Chains

Air Cargo Safety: Thorough Screening and Secure Supply Chains

While the COVID-19 pandemic remains at the forefront of aviation security managers' concerns, traditional security issues such as terrorism and smuggling continue to merit attention and mitigation. Unsecured or improperly screened cargo can be a prime target for bad actors attempting to harm an aircraft in flight. It only takes the addition of one unauthorized piece of material into a shipment to have potentially devastating consequences for an aircraft and its crew.

One of the most noteworthy examples of this occurred on 29 October 2010, when two explosive devices were discovered aboard two different cargo aircraft en route from Sanaa, Yemen to Chicago, United States while conducting stopovers at airports in the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates. The devices were discovered inside two printers and contained explosives of military-grade quality which would have completely destroyed the aircraft if detonated. Both printers passed through Yemen's cargo inspection regimen. This incident identified the continued vulnerability of air cargo to terrorist activities. In response, aviation security authorities introduced major overhauls of cargo security protocols that remain in place today.

Some of the principle risk mitigation techniques in air cargo today are screening cargo, the protection of cargo from the time of screening, and the establishment of secure supply chains. These are all closely tied to one another, as one major way secure supply chains reduce cost and improve efficiency is by reducing the number of times cargo must be screened. A few key points relevant to air cargo operators:

Thorough Screening

Air cargo operators are obligated to select the most appropriate screening method in compliance with their National Civil Aviation Authority, taking into account the unique characteristics of the cargo being screened. Available methods include:

  • Manual search – trained personnel manually inspect the exterior and interior of the cargo.
  • X-ray and neutron scanners – stationary or mobile devices fire high energy particles into cargo containers in order to determine the shape and consistency of the cargo within.
  • Explosive trace and metal detection – high-sensitivity devices scan cargo for chemical traces or unusual metal components.
  • Explosive and narcotics detection canines – canines with specialised training inspect cargo for explosive or narcotics-related odours.
Secure Supply Chains

A secure chain from known suppliers to regulated agents to aviation operator substantially lowers costs while increasing security standards. Key aspects of a secure supply chain include:

  • Known suppliers are registered with aviation security authorities and are verified to have security procedures of a sufficiently compliant standard that further screening is unnecessary. Known suppliers are typically manufacturers or producers.
  • Regulated agents are similarly registered with aviation security authorities and are verified to both have security procedures of an acceptable standard and the ability and equipment to properly screen and protect cargo. Regulated agents are typically freight forwarders or warehouse logistics.
  • Aviation operators can also function as regulated agents for a variety of reasons that include screening redundancies or the ability to internally screen cargo from unknown suppliers.
Operators should take into account the varying ability and desire to enforce cargo security requirements in accordance with their Aircraft Operator Security Programme and the National Civil Aviation Security Programme requirements, and in line with their risk assessment.

For example, locations with less developed airport infrastructure may not have access to advanced screening technology.

Poor training and corruption may hinder proper scanning processes. More so, host States' National Civil Aviation requirements may not align with operators' cargo security requirements.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some countries may have significantly more robust procedures in place. For example, the United States' Air Cargo Advanced Screen (ACAS) program - a pilot of which went into effect following the Yemen incident and was made permanent on June 2018 – requires the advanced submission of information regarding any air cargo being shipped from a foreign location. Other states require 100% screening of all cargo, even if coming from a secure environment. Operators should be fully aware of any limitations or enhanced restrictions at their destination so that they may shape their own planning process accordingly.


With air cargo dominating the aviation operations landscape due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hostile actors may increasingly single out air cargo assets as targets of opportunity. Operators significantly expanding air cargo operations, or who are entering the market for the first time, should familiarise themselves with global air cargo regulations and risk mitigation techniques.

It is imperative that air cargo operators maintain appropriate cargo security standards the same way they would for their aircraft and crew members.

Experienced aviation security analysts, like those at MedAire, provide operators un-biased, third party advice and assistance on a global level.


Commercial Aviation Business and General Aviation covid