Homeland Security-supported cargo screening slated for SFO

Unscreened cargo loaded into the belly of aircraft can pose a security threat to passenger flights, but airport officials are taking steps to nip that threat in the bud with a new screening program.

SFO is one of three airports in the country — the other two have not been named — participating in the Air Cargo Explosives Detection Pilot Program, which is funded with a total of $30 million of homeland security funds, said Ivar Satero, deputy director of airport design and construction. The airport and the Department of Homeland Security signed a memorandum of understanding Monday morning to kick off a pilot cargo-screening program in October.

Half of that $30 million is earmarked for the program at SFO, where officials hope to screen at least 60 percent of cargo.

“Cargo” is everything that doesn’t belong to a passenger but is loaded into an airplane, and can range from food to spare parts to high-tech equipment. Airlines ship cargo to make extra money, airport spokesman Mike McCarron said.

SFO saw 530,000 metric tons of cargo pass through last year on passenger planes, a figure that has remained steady over the last several years. Only a small percentage of that cargo gets screened, McCarron said, but none of those checks have yielded anything dangerous in recent memory.

“I am and have been very concerned about aviation security,” San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said at the memo signing. “We’ve tried to take a leading-edge perspective as it relates to security.”

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will collect data and do the screening, which will take place through 2007, Satero said. It’s not expected to impact existing cargo operations.

The pilot program will apply existing methods used to screen checked baggage, which include bomb-sniffing dogs and X-rays, to cargo. One of these machines, a CTX 9000, is similar to a CAT scan and takes three-dimensional images of the cargo and its contents, McCarron said.

One machine, an explosive trace detection or ETD, works under the logic that someone assembling explosives would leave traces of it on the outside of the package, said Jaime Irick, sales director at General Electric Security. The outside of the package is therefore monitored for substances typically found in explosives and narcotics.

“It’s nonintrusive, which is what we want,” Irick said.

Everything except the passengers

Cargo and bags at SFO

» 530,000 metric tons of cargo in and out of SFO last year.

» 10,000 checked bags for international travel screened daily.

» Everything from food to electronic equipment destined for Silicon Valley is loaded as cargo.

Source: SFO, Congressional Research Service

tramroop@examiner.com

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