Shippers will face more stringent global air cargo security checks from 2021, a move that has already caused concern in Hong Kong where transport experts are worried the lack of preparedness could create airfreight chaos.

Under plans announced two years ago by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the United Nations body responsible for global civilian aviation operations, cargo owners and shippers will either have to become “known consignors” or have their cargo X-rayed before being loaded on aircraft.

The tougher measures that will take effect from July 2021 are seen as an extension of screening regimes that have been put in place by authorities in the US, Europe and China in the wake of the September 2011 terrorist attacks in the US.

“To comply with the requirement, shippers either have to be ‘validated’ by national civil aviation authorities to become known consignors or tender their cargo for full security scanning before loading onto a commercial aircraft,” the Hong Kong Shippers’ Council said in a briefing note.

Paul Tsui, a council member of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) in Hong Kong, said there are around 100,000 shippers in Hong Kong and China who could become known consignors. However, about 80-90% of shippers are small and medium-sized enterprises that do not have sufficient trainers to instruct staff to meet the known consignor requirements.

A raft of companies, especially in Europe, are advertising training services to companies keen to become known consignors.

“Most shippers and freight forwarders are not going to comply with the known consignor requirements. If shippers don’t do validation then they’ll have to go through 100% screening,” Tsui told Forward with Toll.

Hong Kong International Airport handled slightly more than 5 million tonnes of airfreight last year to make it the world’s busiest international air cargo airport. Most airfreight was handled by cargo terminals operated by Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals (HACTL), Cathay Pacific Airways and the Asia Airfreight Centre.

According to Tsui, the total air cargo screening capacity at Hong Kong airport is around 18% of overall throughput, “Even if 50% of shippers require full screening, we’re in trouble.”

His views were echoed by the Hong Kong Shippers’ Council which pointed out the entire scanning chain – such as scanning machines, trained and qualified personnel, secure transport and accreditation institutions – are either insufficient or simply do not exist.

“Besides, if compliance inflates costs significantly, competitiveness would become a major issue. Hong Kong, as the world’s busiest air cargo hub, thrives on flexibility and efficiency. In short, inflating cost is going to worsen the cost disadvantage,” the Shippers’ Council report said.

“Unless the government steps in to help (with screening), there will be a problem,” Tsui said.

Wilson Kwong, HACTL managing director, told Forward with Toll, “The government has established a working group, of which we are a member, to discuss potential solutions.”

In briefing papers, Tsui has proposed the Hong Kong government should set up a common-user scanning centre.

“The best solution would be if the government set up a public facility,” he told Forward with Toll.

The Shippers’ Council said scanning centres could be established in existing logistics and freight forwarding facilities both on-airport and at city centre locations like facilities in Kwai Chung.

Hong Kong’s security bureau is preparing its own advisory paper on the issue, while transport lawmaker Frankie Yick is monitoring developments.

“The deadline is only three years away. Even if work started now, it will still take time to develop,” Tsui said.

The Shippers’ Council added, “We must take a proactive approach and act fast. If not, we are inviting chaos in place of delay.”

HACTL’s Kwong said, “We have successfully dealt with past similar situations and are confident that an effective solution will be achieved once again, given our existing capability and the run-up period available.”