As airline passengers line up to get their carry-on bags searched, thousands of pounds of unscreened cargo are loaded on the same plane with hardly a second glance.
"I think it's a huge loophole," said Charlie LeBlanc, former manager of cargo security with Continental Airlines.
The airlines are responsible for the security of cargo placed on their flights, just as they are responsible for inspecting the passenger bags brought on board a plane. But the airlines rely on the freight shipping companies to vouch for the contents of shipments, and the freight shipping companies often rely on the honesty of frequent customers.
"It would be extremely difficult to inspect every package of every shipment manually," said Jim Foster, executive director of the Air Forwarders Association, which represents freight companies. "That means opening the shipment and comparing the contents to the packing list. It would not be something that people would be willing to pay for."
The casual oversight of cargo on passenger planes has been a vulnerability for years. In 1989, a presidential commission called it "a huge gap in the security umbrella."
Standards were increased in 1993, but a year later, the Federal Aviation Administration was criticized for still not having met the requirements of a 1990 law passed in response to the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Among the areas singled out for improvement by the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, was development of ways to enforce new security rules for mail and other cargo.
No action has been taken by the FAA since, and the fact is, thorough scrutiny is impossible. At New York's Kennedy Airport, 1.4-million tons of cargo worth $86-billion was shipped in 1994 on cargo and passenger planes.
Investigators have speculated that TWA Flight 800 was destroyed July 17 by a bomb in the front cargo section. TWA spokeswoman Beth Randolph said Monday that all cargo records from Flight 800 have been turned over to the FAA. She said that the cargo deliveries to the flight were "routine" and that she couldn't comment further.
LeBlanc, who is now operations manager at Air Security International, a Houston consulting firm, said commercial cargo is generally placed in the front cargo hold of a Boeing 747, while luggage is placed in the rear hold.
The tighter airline security ordered by President Clinton last week will apply to cargo on passenger planes, but the FAA refused to discuss specifics Monday.
Currently, security takes a two-pronged approach. The nation's 1,200-1,500 air forwarders, companies that package air freight and buy space on aircraft, are required to file a security plan with the FAA, certifying that their employees have undergone criminal background checks and other screening, said Ken Jones, director of operations for Air Cargo Inc., an Annapolis, Md.-based company that handles ground shipping for the airlines. The FAA provides the airlines with a list of the approved air forwarders.
In addition, the air forwarders must have plan for inspecting customers, although with FAA approval, they can have less stringent measures for companies like General Motors that conduct regular business, than for those who walk in off the street.
"If somebody walks up to an airline cargo desk and says "I want to ship this box to London,' they will be questioned, and their package would be opened and inspected and possibly held for 48 hours," LeBlanc said.
But there is little done to verify paperwork or check on a person's claims, LeBlanc said.
"If I'm somebody that walks up and says "I'm with XYZ Company," and that company has shipped with them in the past, those checks and balances would not take place nine times out of 10," he said.
In addition, it can take only a few months to establish credibility as a known shipper, a short time for a terrorist with a mission.
The system is different in Europe, where cargo inspections are conducted by civil servants at the airports, said Wanda Potrykus, a spokeswoman for the Montreal-based International Air Transport Association.
Last month, the FAA began testing baggage and cargo containers resistant to bombs, like the one made from plastic explosives smuggled aboard as checked baggage on Pan Am 103. The airlines and freight companies, however, have expressed concern about the additional cost.
"It's a pretty touchy situation to deal with, but everybody is pretty mindful of the need for increased security," Jones said. "The question is, "How do we go about doing something without economically crippling the industry?' "