Customs writing cargo data rules

The Customs Service has begun the arduous task of writing regulations requiring that the electronic manifest for each air cargo shipment be sent to a government database before the shipment leaves a foreign port for the United States.

New rules are expected to go into effect Oct. 1 for air, rail, sea and truck cargo in a move to tighten border security, but first Customs faces the problem of figuring out how to handle the data electronically without stalling the flow of commerce.

"We can't wait until the planes take off, and if we do, you'll have to face the reality that some of these planes will be turned back," Charles Bartoldus, director of Border Targeting and Analysis, said Jan. 14 at a public meeting on developing regulations to collect the data.

Customs, which officially becomes part of the Homeland Security Department Jan. 24, is holding four days of hearings to get feedback from industry on how to comply with the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002. But at the first hearing Jan. 14, industry participants made it clear that requiring a 24-hour notice before liftoff and risking delivery delays could hurt airline shipping.

The advance requirement would "cause more damage to the economy and airlines," Mike White of the Air Transport Association said at the hearing. "The data needs to be sent in a 'wheels-up' mode, not prior to departure."

Other industry executives complained that the requirement could wipe out the air courier industry.

Holding up cargo will have a "big impact on a lot of manufacturers who rely on air service," said David O'Connor, regional director of the International Air Transport Association in Washington, D.C. "They have to have a reliable and regular schedule to receive goods."

But Andrew Maner, chief of staff for Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner, said the threat is as intense today as it was 16 months ago.

"The risk is as high as it has ever been," Maner said. "How do we separate high risk from low risk? Better information."

Customs officials readily acknowledged it is a tough problem for them. They are in the process of building a Web-based data system called the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE).

The system is intended to provide electronic information about cargo inspections and clearance into the United States, but it will not be fully operational until 2007. In the meantime, Customs must still rely on the aging Automated Commercial System to handle the manifest data.

"I'm not sure we have a choice. We don't have the time to wait for ACE," said John Considine, director of the Cargo Verification Division in Customs' Office of Field Operations.


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