NEW YORK — While the vast majority of apparel imported into the U.S. from Asia comes by boat, retailers who want to chase fashion trends more closely rely on air freight, which can cut several weeks off the delivery time.

This story first appeared in the January 20, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But those who work the razor edge of just-in-time ordering may need to steel themselves for delays, as the government begins to turn more attention to the security of air cargo.

“For all the talk about heightened security…very little has actually been done to close the air cargo loopholes in the aviation-security infrastructure,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) at a press conference early this month. “The cargo on passenger planes is still not screened and security requirements for all-cargo shippers remain lax.”

Schumer called on the federal government to begin screening all commercial air cargo, just as all checked and carry-on baggage on passenger jets is now screened.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks illustrated the potential danger lurking in the thousands of cargo containers that enter the U.S. every day, the Customs Service put in place stepped-up monitoring and inspections at major seaports in the U.S. and abroad, through the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism.

Schumer contended the Transportation Security Administration, which like Customs is now part of the Department of Homeland Security, has not taken sufficient steps to ensure the security of air cargo.

“The TSA still relies on private companies to screen cargo, doesn’t require fortified cockpit doors on all-cargo airplanes and hasn’t gotten a background check system up and running for people who have access to cargo going on the planes,” he said. “You have to scratch your head in wonderment that in the post-9/11 era, the federal government still rolls the dice when it comes to security.”

The relatively small size of passenger baggage in comparison to commercial shipments makes x-raying bags a much easier proposition than palettes containing hundreds of items. Schumer said that in the case of cargo that is too large to be screened in the same manner, the U.S. should adopt a more thorough tracking system to ensure that packages have not been tampered with.

He called on the TSA to eventually require that all commercial cargo be shipping in tamper-resistant and bomb-proof boxes.

A TSA spokeswoman said: “We take a layered security approach, a risk-managed security approach, recognizing that no single layer of security is sufficient.”

Some key elements to the TSA’s approach include allowing cargo on passenger flights only if it is being sent by a shipper known to the airline, meaning a customer the airline has done business with for a long period of time.

“There are limitations on technology and infrastructure that make it impractical to open every box,” she added, explaining that TSA uses a threat-matrix system to identify shipments that may be high-risk. All of those shipments are opened, she said.

She also noted that the agency continues to invest in research into new technologies that would allow it to make its inspection process more complete.

To help finance these proposals, as well as others relating to background checks on workers who have access to cargo loading areas, Schumer suggested upping the the budget of Homeland Security to $400 million from $55 million.

Importer officials said any increased inspections would have a particular effect on fast-fashion specialty chains, which tend to rely heavily on air freight. But they said businesses have learned the importance of adapting to these new procedures, given their clear value in the post-9/11 era.

“The industry will build the supply chain around these security concerns the way we built the supply chain around the container concerns,” said Rick Darling president of Li & Fung USA, a branch of the Hong Kong sourcing powerhouse. “Air security, frankly, is a critical issue for all of us that fly and the general public. In the long term, the industry will react and find an efficient way to follow new guidelines. It’s the same as the inconveniences we’re all going through at the airports. It’s a fact of life now. Our ports, cargo and airports have got to be secured.”

He said air cargo was used heavily by specialty chains.

“The fashion, quick-response guys are in some cases using 60 to 70 percent air cargo,” he estimated.

Schumer noted that 271,702 flights carrying unscreened cargo landed in the three metro area airports during the year ended Sept. 30. Those flights carried more than 2.6 million tons of freight, up 4.5 percent from the previous year.