Disturbed by reports showing that half of the cargo transported on passenger aircraft at Los Angeles International and other airports remains unscreened, Congresswoman Maxine Waters is calling for improved measures regarding security screening for cargo.

Waters, who represents the 35th Congressional District which includes Westchester and the LAX area, submitted two amendments to the Homeland Security Appropriations Act (HR 2892) June 23rd, relating to “LAX cargo screening reporting” and “cargo screening reporting” for other airports. The motions call on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to inform Congress about current cargo screening practices at LAX and also request TSA to provide a progress report on meeting the mandate to screen 100 percent of air cargo by August 2010.

While Waters’ proposed amendments were not added to the Appropriations Act, the congresswoman wants to ensure that TSA is increasing its cargo screening efforts at airports, said Michael Levin, a Waters spokesman. According to the airport’s Web site, LAX is the world’s sixth busiest airport for passengers and ranks 13th in the world for air cargo handled.

“LAX is located in my congressional district. It serves my constituents as well as millions of other Americans and travelers from all over the world, and it is also a major hub for cargo shipments,” Waters said.

“I want to make sure that we are doing everything possible to safeguard the airport and our country, and this includes thoroughly screening all cargo transported on passenger flights arriving at or leaving from LAX.”

Following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, the TSA was created by Congress and required to screen all passengers and property transported on passenger airplanes, including cargo, U.S. mail, and checked and carry-on baggage. Under the 9/11 Commission Act, enacted in 2007, TSA was required to have systems in place to physically screen 50 percent of cargo on passenger aircraft by February this year and 100 percent of such cargo by August 2010.

TSA officials say the agency has met the mandates of the law and is currently screening 50 percent of all air cargo carried on passenger aircraft, according to the agency’s Web site at www.tsa.gov/. The agency is screening 100 percent of the cargo on 96 percent of flights originating in the U.S., officials said.

But Waters says she has been concerned for “quite some time” that much of the cargo on passenger planes is unscreened and she brought the issue up to new Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano during her visit to LAX earlier this year.

“Most Americans don’t know that when they get on planes, in the belly of the plane there may be cargo that has not been screened for explosives. We need to do a better job of securing this cargo,” Waters said.

“I don’t want to unduly alarm the public about the safety of traveling through LAX or any other airport, but neither should we have a false sense of security.”

Although TSA directly screens all passengers and their baggage before boarding commercial aircraft, cargo screening continues to be the responsibility of the individual airlines, Waters notes.

The congresswoman said there is reason to doubt whether TSA will meet the mandate to reach 100 percent screening, referring to an Appropriations Committee hearing in March, when a TSA official reportedly indicated that it was unlikely the agency could meet the 100-percent screening mandate for international flights.

According to the TSA Web site, one step in the agency achieving 100 percent screening is the requirement that all airlines operating narrow-body passenger aircraft at U.S. airports screen 100 percent of cargo carried on them. The security agency already has a “multi-layered, high-tech, industry-cooperative approach” that uses surprise inspections and screens 100 percent of cargo at 250 smaller airports, the Web site states.

TSA officials affirm that they are “effectively protecting the vast majority of the flying public.”

Under new air cargo regulations, the agency will be conducting 100,000 more background checks, specifically on employees who are involved in the cargo transportation, the Web site says.

Nicco Melendez, TSA spokesman in Los Angeles, did not respond to The Argonaut’s request for comment on Waters’ proposal.

Los Angeles World Airports referred phone calls on the issue to TSA.

City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the LAX area, offered support for Waters’ call for improved cargo screening measures, calling it a “no-brainer.”

“It definitely makes sense to do this,” said Rosendahl. “Security is a first for all of us and I applaud Maxine for her leadership on this.”