Hong Kong hub role at risk amid tighter US checks on cargo
New security rules require all shipments to be fully X-rayed before being loaded on aircraft
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Exporters face tougher security controls on airfreight to the United States next week, which, together with similar measures taken by Europe next year, threaten Hong Kong's position as the world's busiest air cargo hub.
The new rules require 100 per cent X-ray screening of all freight and the submission of detailed information about exporters before the cargo is loaded.
For Europe-bound freight, the data will also include security audits of cargo owners and possibly of manufacturers, including those on the mainland.
Dr Paul Tsui Hon-yan, the chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Freight Forwarding And Logistics, fears the restrictions will cause delays to shipments and erode Hong Kong's efficient handling of airfreight.
He also questioned whether there is sufficient X-ray capacity at the airport cargo terminals, and wants the development of a dedicated X-ray complex.
Mark Whitehead, the managing director of Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Ltd, the biggest airfreight handler at Chek Lap Kok, agreed Hong Kong could lose its place as the world's largest international cargo airport.
Whitehead said one of Hong Kong airport's advantages was its "efficiency of getting cargo in at the last minute" with delivery to Hactl within three or five hours before aircraft take-off.
This speed advantage could be lost with Hong Kong being no more efficient than the mainland, where all airfreight is X-rayed and kept on the ground for 24 hours before loading aboard aircraft.
Whitehead said security was the top priority for airlines but "speed and efficiency is a close second".
Nick Rhodes, the director of Cathay Pacific Cargo, said the airline would launch the US air cargo advance screening pilot programme next week.
Tsui said the pilot would be extended to freight forwarders later.
Under the scheme, airlines and freight forwarders will have to submit details about the shipper, consignee and cargo to the Transportation Security Administration at US Customs and Border Protection before cargo is loaded on aircraft.
Law enforcement officials will then give permission to load, or decide what cargo should be X-rayed or stopped from being loaded pending further inquiries.
"The response from US TSA/CBP normally takes a few minutes but it can extend to as long as two hours after data submission," Tsui said.
Cargo flown in the bellies of passenger aircraft to the US is already fully X-rayed but it accounts for just 1 to 2 per cent of Hong Kong's total airfreight throughput of 4 million tonnes.
By comparison, cargo flown in freighter aircraft account for 18 to 19 per cent of the city's total cargo volumes. Tsui said the volume that would require screening could "be very substantial".
Figures show Hactl handled more than 1,100 tonnes of US export cargo per day early last month, but has screening capacity to X-ray about 500 tonnes of freight per day.