Aviation Safety:

Undeclared Air Shipments of Dangerous Goods and DOT's Enforcement Approach

GAO-03-22: Published: Jan 10, 2003. Publicly Released: Jan 15, 2003.

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Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
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Office of Public Affairs
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When shipments of dangerous goods (hazardous chemical substances that could endanger public safety or the environment, such as flammable liquids or radioactive materials) are not properly packaged and labeled for air transport, they can pose significant threats because there is little room for error when something goes wrong in flight. To better understand the risks posed by improper ("undeclared") air shipments, we assessed what is known about their nature and frequency, what key mechanisms are in place to prevent their occurrence, and what the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Postal Service do to enforce federal regulations for shipping dangerous goods by air.

Little is known about the nature and frequency of undeclared shipments of dangerous goods. While major carriers and the Postal Service believe such shipments are rare, their belief is based mainly on inspections of problem shipments, such as those that leak. Statistically valid, generalizable data are not available and would be difficult to obtain, not only because more inspections would entail costly delays for carriers but also because Constitutional protections limit DOT's and the Postal Service's inspection authority. DOT is seeking greater authority to open potentially problematic shipments for inspection, but its efforts are not limited to air transport and would not enable DOT's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to obtain statistically valid, generalizable data on the nature and frequency of undeclared air shipments. A change in the law requiring that shippers consent to the opening of packages for inspection might be appropriate for air transport and would enable FAA to obtain such data. FAA could then identify the resources and actions needed to address the problem. Federal regulations create a framework for transporting dangerous goods safely, and outreach to shippers and carriers helps to prevent undeclared shipments. Private industry does business primarily with "known shippers" (those that have shown they comply with the regulations). The Postal Service cannot restrict its business to known shippers, but it requires customers to bring packages weighing 16 ounces or more to a post office for screening. Carriers and the Postal Service both train their employees to screen for undeclared shipments. The Postal Service and FAA monitor and enforce compliance with federal regulations for transporting dangerous goods by air. However, the Postal Service cannot fine violators and seldom takes criminal action, since most violations are inadvertent. FAA's enforcement guidance calls for documenting the reasons for any changes in the fines its inspectors initially propose. GAO's review of enforcement case files indicates that the reasons for changes were not always documented. FAA attributes some changes to the results of penalty negotiations. Because FAA is not always following its guidance, it cannot ensure that its fines are appropriate or consistent.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Recommendation was not in either DOT's last authorization or current authorization.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen DOT's enforcement of dangerous goods regulations,the Secretary of Transportation should determine whether the unique characteristics of air transport warrant the development of a legislative proposal that would enhance DOT's authority to inspect packages shipped by air.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOT has introduced legislation that directs the Comptroller General to study and report to Congress on methods of determining the amount of undeclared shipments of hazardous materials entering the United States.

    Recommendation: Depending on the results of his determination, the Secretary should direct the FAA Administrator to develop a legislative proposal that would require shippers to consent to the opening for inspection of packages shipped by air. Such a proposal would not only enhance FAA's inspection authority but would also enable FAA to obtain statistically valid, generalizable data on the nature and frequency of undeclared air shipments of dangerous goods.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA issued a memorandum to its regional staff that emphasized the importance of documenting in the case file any chnages in a proposed sanction and the reason for these changes. In addition, the memo requested that staffs conduct periodic checks to ensure that this is being satisfactorily accomplished.

    Recommendation: Finally, the Secretary should direct the Administrator to ensure that FAA better communicate and enforce its requirement to document the justification for any substantial changes to an initially proposed penalty before issuing a final order assessing a penalty.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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