Passengers may see heightened security after terror threat

The U.S. government said Friday it is taking additional security measures after seizing two explosive packages packed aboard cargo jets, which could mean more hassle for travelers this weekend.

In Central New York, some were being cautious while traveling today. "I was a little anxious about traveling today, said a few prayers, and made sure I was at the airport plenty ahead of time," said Ellen Powers.

"There are always going to be threats but technology being what it is, they found it and stopped it," said Joshua Finkelstein.

Even though the packages addressed to Chicago-area synagogues were on cargo jets, airline passengers will see stepped-up security, too. Federal officials warned that they were not assuming that the two packages they found were the end of the attack.

The Department of Homeland Security said it has "taken a number of steps to enhance security," some visible, some not.

It said travelers should expect "heightened cargo screening and additional security at airports" including the detection of trace amounts of explosives, bomb-sniffing dogs, and pat-downs.

"It causes a little more inconvenience for those traveling but I can understand why vigilance has been stepped up," said Ryan Hanson.

Delta Air Lines Inc. confirmed that it is increasing security in response to the incident, though it didn't provide details. All airlines carry cargo in the bellies of their passenger planes.

Delta and United Continental Holdings Inc. both said their flights to Dubai and other points in the Middle East would go forward as planned on Saturday.

Over the long run, the incident is not likely to result in any major security changes that passengers will see, said Jim Ramsay, a professor and coordinator of the homeland security program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The U.S. has known all along that cargo - especially cargo from overseas - is a risk, he said.

"It was possible yesterday. It was discovered today," he said.

The international cooperation that foiled the plot on Friday is a sign that the U.S. is working well with allies to stop attacks. And as long as there is air travel, there will be risk, he said.

"Commerce needs to continue," he said. "Passengers are not at any more risk now than they were before."

Richard Bloom, an aviation-security expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said because terrorists change their tactics, security guidelines need to be flexible.

"Any mandatory requirement can be known by the people who want to violate security," Bloom said.

Some questions and answers about cargo rules:

Q. Will the discovery of explosive materials in shipments bound for the U.S. lead to changes in cargo rules?

A. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says it is taking extra steps to improve security including heightened cargo screening. The agency didn't give many details, and it said some of the changes won't be apparent to travelers.

Q. Do airlines in the U.S. have to inspect cargo shipped on passenger jets?

A. Yes. Since Aug. 1, airlines have been required to screen or inspect all cargo going on passenger planes flying within the United States or leaving the U.S. for other countries. A lot of cargo other than baggage gets shipped on passenger airlines. Cargo is a big revenue source for airlines.

Q. What about cargo coming to the U.S. on a passenger airline from another country?

A. That's a big weakness in the system. The Government Accountability Office estimated this summer that by August only 65 percent of all cargo coming into the United States would be screened. TSA has been talking to officials in other countries to win their cooperation in stricter screening of cargo headed to the U.S.

Brandon Fried, a cargo security expert and executive director of the Airforwarders Association, said most countries are eager to screen cargo.

"They want to protect their people, they want to protect their airplanes. They realize what's at stake here," he said. "the notion of them not doing it, or just putting cargo willy-nilly on a plane is just crazy."

Q. What about cargo-only airlines?

A. The 100-percent screening requirement for passenger airlines doesn't apply to cargo shipped on cargo-only airlines. Which cargo gets "positively screened" - use of x-ray machines, swabbing packages for chemicals used in explosives, computer verification of the shipper's identity - depends on the shipper and the security program.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the government created a program called the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. Cargo airlines and companies that ship goods to the U.S. Develop security plans. If the plans are approved by U.S. officials, cargo from those airlines and companies speeds through customs and is less likely to be screened.

Some cargo airlines go beyond government requirements depending upon the cargo, where it originates and if the shipper is well-known to the airline. Cargo from an unknown shipper in a part of the world where the drug-trade is particularly strong is more likely to be screened for drugs, for example.

Q. How is cargo screened?

A. The process is growing more automated all the time. Since the beginning of 2009, the TSA has approved dozens of new machines used to scan shipments for traces of explosive materials, chemicals and other substances. Screeners use everything from handheld wands to 12-foot-high X-ray machines to examine cargo.

Q. Who does the screening?

A. It can be done by the airlines themselves or by other companies - shippers and freight forwarders - who are certified by the TSA. Shipments screened before they go to the airport are tagged to ensure that they aren't opened before being loaded on a plane.