Safety Up In The Air

I don't know about you, but I fly a lot. I was in the air ready to land at La Guardia on the morning of 9/11 only to be diverted to – of all places -- Boston. I was on a virtually empty flight three days later and I've been on plenty of packed ones since, accustomed to long lines at security and fellow passengers who don't know the difference between three and 30 ounces of gel. I feel safer knowing as a nation we're on alert – folks are getting screened, wanded, and otherwise patted down, and cockpit doors are bolted and secure.

But what troubles me, as the result of a two-month investigation by CBS News, is what may be sitting in the belly of my plane and thousands more every day in this country: some 50,000 TONS of air cargo, as little as 10 percent that's actually subject to security checks. You read that right…50 thousands tons. Sitting unscreened in the cargo hold of major commercial jetliners.

"We have a very serious risk here," aviation expert Steve Flynn told me. "If I wanted to penetrate the air cargo security system it's a pretty straight forward thing to do."

Which is pretty much what we did. For our story on tonight's CBS Evening News, we tested the system by sending specially-designed packages from London, Paris and Rio to the United States, then domestically on cargo-only planes from Dulles to LAX. The upshot was this: five of our six packages went unopened and were never x-rayed, even though a top Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) official told us they might have been checked by explosion detection devices or bomb sniffing dogs. Maybe. Maybe not.

On the heels of our reporting the TSA issued a new series of directives designed to tighten requirements for air cargo on passenger flights and increase background checks on what are called "Known" shippers. Kudos and plaudits for those steps. Still not every package will be screened for bombs, not even close. And in this day and age I'm not crazy about the odds when I'm up in the air.