U.S. said 'likely' to expand laptop ban in airliner cabins beyond Europe

Bloomberg, AP

The U.S. is considering expansion of a ban on laptops in airliner cabins on flights not only from Europe but from other regions as well, as objections against any broader restrictions mounted.

U.S. anti-terror officials are looking at other areas “not solely Europe,” David Lapan, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. He declined to identify the other areas. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly hasn’t made a final decision but an expansion is “likely,” Lapan said.

On Wednesday, Australia’s prime minister also revealed that the country was considering following the U.S. and Britain in banning laptops from inbound airliner cabins. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declined to explain whether the move was related to an Islamic State group threat that President Donald Trump discussed with Russian diplomats.

Turnbull revealed Tuesday that his government was “looking … very closely” at the bans on laptops and tablets on flights from some Middle Eastern countries.

Questioned by reporters Wednesday, Turnbull refused to discuss the intelligence upon which a laptop ban was being considered or its source.

“As prime minister protecting our national security and the national interest, I have to be circumspect and discreet on matters of national security,” Turnbull said. “My job is not to feed speculative commentary in the media.”

Australia would “work very closely with our partners around the world” in constantly reviewing aviation security, he said.

The U.S. ban on laptops and tablets affects flights from Amman, Jordan; Kuwait City; Cairo; Istanbul; Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Casablanca, Morocco; Doha, Qatar, and Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

The British security rules apply to flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

Earlier Tuesday, the European Union pressed the U.S. to refrain from banning laptops and other electronics in cabins of flights to America from Europe, saying both sides needed to work in tandem to curb the threat of terrorism.

The entreaty came a day before European and U.S. officials were to meet in Brussels to weigh barring air passengers from carrying laptops in cabins. The U.S. in March imposed a ban imposed on electronic devices larger than mobile phones — including tablets, laptops and DVD players — in cabins on flights from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Washington Post on Monday reported that President Donald Trump revealed to Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador closely held intelligence from a U.S. partner about an Islamic State terrorist plot to use laptops as possible weapons aboard commercial aircraft.

The EU’s home-affairs chief cautioned against any hasty decision by officials in Washington.

“We are very much concerned,” EU Home-Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told reporters in Strasbourg, France. “We know that unilateral decisions should not be taken.”

Airports Council International, a trade association, said a ban could affect 3,684 flights weekly to the U.S. from 59 European airports.

“We are concerned about the consequences that such a ban would have on demand for trans-Atlantic air travel,” Olivier Jankovec, director-general of ACI Europe, said in a statement. “The fact that one of the affected Gulf airlines has downsized its operations to the U.S. is indeed worrying — and points to a wider and lasting economic impact.”

As many as 90 percent of passengers carry affected devices, the group estimates, meaning that implementing ad hoc screening checks and loading devices into aircraft cargo compartments would cause significant delays and cancellations.

U.S. carriers have urged officials to consider alternatives to a ban, including using additional small scanners or explosives trace-detection systems on every item brought onto planes. Airlines worry that a ban could decrease lucrative business travel.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is “well aware” of views from airlines, airports, other nations and other stakeholders, Lapan said. “It’s our primary responsibility to consider the safety of the traveling public.” Secretary Kelly won’t attend the Brussels meeting Wednesday because of a scheduling conflict, Lapan said.

The European Commission, the 28-nation EU’s executive arm in Brussels, is coordinating the bloc’s response to the aviation-security deliberations. The EU-U.S. meeting on Wednesday will involve an “information exchange,” European Security Commissioner Julian King said in Strasbourg. He said he didn’t know if the gathering would yield any conclusion.

A senior EU official who is involved in the matter and who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the commission’s concerns so far have prevented the U.S. from widening the laptop ban to Europe. The official said Wednesday’s meeting would be a “marathon” session.