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Air cargo supply chain security: Putting the cart before the horse?

By Ruwantissa Abeyratne on November 26, 2013

On the fringes of the 38th Session of the Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization, Raymond Benjamin, secretary general of ICAO, and Kunio Mikuriya, secretary general of the World Customs Organization held a joint press conference to highlight the ongoing efforts of ICAO and WCO to streamline and strengthen air cargo supply chain security. They were joined by Oliver Evans, chairman of The International Air Cargo Association, who provided important cargo industry viewpoints.

Emphasis at the assembly on the subject of cargo security was on partnership and harmonization of standards, with some decisions being taken on security, including the need to move ahead with the finalization of reinforced air cargo security rules at a global level. The assembly agreed on the adoption by ICAO of a mechanism for the recognition of security measures, by which countries would recognize the equivalence of aviation security measures. It was hoped that this would pave the way to a one-stop security approach.

The approach taken by all three organizations is indeed laudable if the proposed mechanism can be developed by ICAO and implemented in a balanced manner. Earlier, at a pre-assembly symposium held also at ICAO, Evans emphasized that mail and cargo posed similar risks and therefore, WCO and the Universal Postal Union must be kept in the loop of a coordinated cargo security approach.

Obviously, there are many players to be considered in the proposed ICAO mechanism.  Regrettably, what was not discussed in this equation was the compelling need to seek an essential balance between cargo security and its supply chain and the possible effects a unified security approach might have in negating the one-third of world trade enabled by air carriage if economic factors are not considered.

The ICAO Assembly adopted a resolution on security with a single mention that ICAO should develop and implement strengthened and harmonized measures and best practices for air cargo security, taking into account the need to protect the entire air cargo supply chain. There is also a general clause calling for stakeholders to cooperate with each other. The only other resolution on this subject – on facilitation – has just one insignificant mention, urging countries and operators, in cooperation with interested international organizations, to make all possible efforts to speed up the handling and clearance of air cargo, while ensuring the security of the international supply chain.

In developing the security mechanism, ICAO should take care not to place the cart before the horse. Any security mechanism should not be considered before considering the trade and economic aspects of the cargo supply chain. In this context, the critical players are the cargo carrier, freight forwarder, shipper and the customer who orders the product. These four categories demand certain features in the carriage of cargo.

As for the air carrier, it is primarily the right to operate with connectivity. The carriage of cargo must ensure fast and dependable connectivity to the world economy. There must also be harmonization of the air traffic management system and fast, efficient and effective border crossing. Ownership and control restrictions on air carriers must be relaxed and free trade agreements, including open skies agreements, must be promoted.

Separate resolutions dealing with trading through the cargo supply chain with security on the one hand and liberalization of trade on the other only help perpetuate the silo system under which ICAO operates. The horse represents trade, and security would be the cart. Without the air transport product, there would not be the need to talk about security, or for that matter safety or the environment.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne has worked in aviation management for 30 years and was a senior professional at the International Civil Aviation Organization for 23 years.

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