Sunday, October 31, 2010

Freight as the Weakest Link in the Chain

I travel a lot by plane, train, automobile, and/or bus and frequently write on this blog about my travel experiences. In my writings I have also commented on my air travel experiences and lack of security at distant airports. In my research, I assess network systems, in particular, those in transportation and logistics, including supply chains, from their efficiency to their vulnerability. A recent study of ours: "Fragile Networks; Identifying Vulnerabilities and Synergies in an Uncertain Age" highlights the system-wide aspects of network performance and the negative impact of disruptions as well as total link failures.

The events over the past couple of days in which cargo shipments, originating in Yemen, were found to contain explosive devices, which could have brought down airplanes, have further highlighted the importance of checking cargo.

As reported in the article, Mail Bombs Highlight Flaws in Systems for Screening Air Freight, in today's Boston Globe: "If you talk to anybody senior at airports, they will tell you freight is the weak link in the chain." This quote by Chris Yates, an aviation security specialist, is literally on target.

As for the facts reported in the article:

  • Approximately 60 percent of all cargo coming into the United States is on passenger planes with the remainder of about 40 percent arriving on cargo planes.
  • About 50,000 tons of cargo is shipped by air within the United States every day, with approximately 25 percent of that shipped by passenger airlines.

One particular vulnerability in the system: Trusted companies that regularly do business with freight shippers are allowed to ship parcels as “secure’’ cargo that is not automatically subjected to further checks.

Some countries such as England already have heightened and thorough cargo security checks which delay shipments up to 24 hours but offer safety and piece of mind. Here we see multicriteria decision-making in action -- counterbalancing cost vs. time vs. safety/security.

Read the terrific article in the Boston Globe by Gregory Katz and ponder what else besides the passengers and crew may be on that plane with you as you circle the globe.