There were some familiar sounds emanating from the United States House of Representatives last week which indicated the international trade transport industries would continue to foot part of the bill for America's unabated sense of vulnerability to weapons of mass destruction. The House approved legislation which would order the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the body which controls US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Federal Aviation Administration, to screen all packages placed in the cargo holds of passenger planes. The intent of the screening requirement is to 'end the practice of allowing unscreened, uninspected packages to be placed in the cargo hold of passenger planes', according to one of the initiative's authors, Representative Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts. While the proposal still has to gain approval from the Senate, the key word here is 'uninspected' because it smacks of mandatory X-rays, a time-consuming and expensive exercise from the infrastructure perspective, let alone what it may cost the supply chain in terms of efficiency. The clear message the House's approval sent was the 'known shipper' programme, under the auspices of which exporters to the US and their freight forwarding partners have expedited customs clearance and access to the world's most lucrative consumer market, does not protect US interests. The contents of a shipment from a 'known shipper' are no longer assumed safe and Mr Markey dismissed claims that 100 per cent screening will bring the supply chain of the highest-value goods grinding to a halt. 'Although the DHS and cargo-shipping interests have argued it would be too burdensome to screen cargo destined for passenger planes, it was a common practice prior to September 11 for any package received from an 'unknown shipper', and it continues to be the practice for packages from 'unknown shippers' inbound from airports overseas,' he said. The Markey amendment will prohibit funding of security plans which do not require physical screening of cargo carried in passenger planes. While all this is taking place a 17-hour flight away in Washington, its practical and financial impact could be felt disproportionately outside the US airline community, which is why the attachment to DHS's request for a US$29.4 billion security budget was passed without a whimper from the powerful lobbying machines. Granted, the US consumer will ultimately pay but unlike when the CBP proposed earlier this year that manifests for air freight be submitted eight to 12 hours before departure, this initiative appears to be winding its way through the US decision-making apparatus without opposition from the influential voices of Federal Express and United Parcel Service, which, of course, will largely dodge its impact. Other parties which know how to bend an ear on Capitol Hill, such as American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines and United Airlines, are nowhere near as dependant on revenues from air freight as are, say, Asian carriers, particularly those in Hong Kong. Cathay Pacific Airways, for example, is reliant on cargo for a third of its annual revenue and estimates '80 to 90 per cent' of its volume comes from 'known shippers', meaning it is delivered by freight forwarders through which the airline does regular business. Presumably, those forwarders have done due diligence on their exporter customers. It also means those goods, because they are lower risk, would only undergo random inspection, a process now deemed inadequate by Mr Markey and his nervous compatriots in the US. There is another reason why United, Northwest and Delta have been less than vociferous about the new legislation: according to a local cargo executive for a US firm, American carriers already inspect all the cargo they fly to the US. 'We inspect 100 per cent, but I can't say what the Asian carriers' ratio would be. It would vary from company to company. I think this initiative would be aimed at tightening things up,' he said. Things, that is, outside the US where the cargo is sourced. Washington, it appears, is increasingly legislating for the world. The DHS's approved budget has earmarked US$129 million for 'cargo inspection technology', presumably for goods moved by air and sea. But it is a safe bet that money will not see its way overseas to Third World markets where the cost of buying state-of-the-art screening technology would be prohibitively expensive. The task of inspecting all freight in passenger aircraft is daunting, given that about half the world's air cargo moves in passenger jets. If one accepts that the threat from weapons of mass destruction warrants such a drastic move, the cost of doing so would certainly be higher than US$129 million. It would require the funds to arm the world, particularly those regions where capital is in short supply, with weapons of mass inspection.