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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as scribbles occasional travel pieces for The National.
The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) backed away yesterday from imposing a wider airline laptop ban, and instead announced new security measures, both seen and unseen, that will be implemented at last-point-of-departure airports in 105 countries around the world for flights to the United States.
The measures will cover 280 airports, affect an average of 2100 flights daily, and apply to an average of 325,000 passengers daily, according to this DHS fact sheet.
In March, the United States banned laptops, tablets, and other electronics devices larger than a standard smartphone from cabin baggage on flights from 10 Middle Eastern airports. The United Kingdom followed with a similar– but not identical– measure covering six countries and fourteen carriers.
Many, including Moon of Alabama (see here), saw the US ban as a form of protectionism targeting leading government-backed Middle Eastern airlines Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad Airways, thus fulfilling a pledge Trump had made to CEOs from three US airlines, as I discussed in this post, Airline Cabin Laptop Ban: More Security Theater?
That rationale, however, doesn’t convincingly explain the UK’s ban, which doesn’t cover the three Middle Eastern airlines, and in fact, also applies to some British Airlines flights.
Both the US and UK bans were also heavily criticised for requiring passengers to check their devices in the hold, with security experts warning that this practice would increase the risk that fires that might start in lithium batteries embedded in the devices would be difficult to control. That fire risk was considered by many to be more real and serious than the terrorism risk that the ban purported to address.
In addition, businesses and individuals objected to surrendering control over their devices, concerned about possible theft either of the devices themselves or of confidential data stored therein. Since the ban was imposed, there has been a drop in demand for the targeted flights (see, for example, this account in The National Emirates cuts flights to US over laptop ban).
New Policy Forestalls Wider Laptop Ban
Over the last several months, the US has reportedly mulled extending the device ban to flights originating in European airports. As the Financial Times reports in US demands tougher airline security but avoids laptop ban, the revised policy– which merely steps up security procedures — represents a major victory for European countries and carriers:
One European airline official predicted “chaos, at least to begin with”, saying there were questions over the cost of new security equipment and whether passengers transferring on their way to the US would need to be screened twice. But the official added: “We’re absolutely relieved that this is not a laptop ban, and that this is a worldwide measure, not one that is EU focused. A laptop ban would have caused fire hazards if they were packed in the hold, and those issues were never resolved.”
Jerri-Lynn here: Please allow me a bit of a personal aside here. It’s not just the Europeans, but also this frequent traveller who breathes a big sigh of relief that for the moment, travellers will still be able to pack electronic devices in their cabin baggage- especially as I write these words while sitting in Hong Kong, having flown from Kolkata on Tuesday via Bangkok. One of my bags made it, but alas, the other still has not– more than 2 full days after I arrived– and despite my persistent follow-up efforts, no one seems to have any idea where my bag is or when I’ll see it again. And I was just told that I must wait 7 days before I’ll be eligible for anything by way of compensation.
So, I can only imagine the nightmare that would result if a wider electronics ban were to be imposed, either on all flights into the US, or more widely.
New DHS Policy
The new security regime includes these elements:
- Enhancing overall passenger screening;
- Conducting heightened screening of personal electronic devices;
- Increasing security protocols around aircraft and in passenger areas; and
- Deploying advanced technology, expanding canine screening, and establishing additional preclearance locations.
Airlines that fail to comply with the new requirements face a total ban on passengers being allowed to carry electronics devices with them on flights to the United States– whether in the cabin, or checked in the hold.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said these are just some of the new security measures that will be rolled out. Yet one line in today’s Reuters report on the new policy, U.S. unveils enhanced airline security plan to avoid laptop ban, makes me wonder how well-considered this policy actually a is: “U.S. carriers said they would follow the new security directive, but industry trade group Airlines for America (A4A), criticized Homeland Security for not working more closely with them on the new policies.”
In remarks delivered yesterday, Kelly invoked the terrorism specter as the rationale for the extended procedures:
We cannot play international whack-a-mole with each new threat. Instead, we must put in place new measures across the board to keep the traveling public safe and make it harder for terrorists to succeed.
Now, if these measures are indeed well-considered and necessary, then why confine them only to flights to the United States? I turn again to the Reuters report, which addresses exactly this question: “European airline groups said in a document reviewed by Reuters that if the threats are confirmed, the restrictions should be deployed to cover all EU departing flights, not just U.S.-bound flights.” I suggest in future that more and more flights will be subject to similar procedures.
The DHS declined to spell out a firm timetable for airlines to implement the new security measures, with Al Jazeera reporting, “officials would only say that they would give adequate time for the airlines to adapt”, in US toughens airport security for foreign flights.
In some cases, the required changes would be minor; in others, more comprehensive overhaul is necessary. According to the FT account cited above:
“We believe every airline and every airport in the world can meet these standards in a very short period of time if they chose to do so,” a senior official at the department of homeland security said on Wednesday, adding the US will work with airlines and airports to implement the measures. “Whether they want to do it in 24 hours or six months, it’s up to them.”
Reuters, however, reports that airlines must implement increased explosive trace detection screening within 21 says and comply with other security measures, including enhanced screening of airline passengers, within 120 days.
As to those ten airports affected by the original March US ban, the FT reports, “US officials said these 10 have already indicated they will seek to implement the new measures ‘aggressively’ in order to have the ban lifted.”
US Presses for Enhanced Pre-Screening Role
As part of the new security measures, the US is also pressing to increase “pre-clearance” immigration measures manned by US Customs and Border Patrol officials stationed at the origin airport to process US-bound passengers before they board their international flights.
Such arrangements are already in place in 15 airports in 6 countries, including Canada, Ireland, and the United Arab Emirates. Al Jazeera notes– drolly I think– that this proposal “raises sensitive sovereignty issues to have US law enforcement officials operate inside another country.”