US may apply cabin baggage restrictions to more airports

Even as the US mulls over expanding the ban on carrying certain electronic devices in cabin baggage, Europe's aviation regulator expressed its concern over the risk of battery fires in the cargo holds.
Even as the US mulls over expanding the ban on carrying certain electronic devices in cabin baggage, Europe's aviation regulator expressed its concern over the risk of battery fires in the cargo holds.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Real threat of terror group trying to blow up plane mid-flight, says security chief

WASHINGTON • The United States may soon expand its ban on passengers carrying certain electronic devices in the cabin baggage on US-bound flights, said Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

The threat of a terror group trying to blow up an aircraft mid-flight is constant, he told a Senate hearing on border security on Wednesday, suggesting that the current ban might not have gone far enough.

"It's real, I think it's getting realer," said Mr Kelly of the threat.

"We may take measures in the not-too-distant future to expand the number of airports."

Last month, Washington banned passengers travelling on direct flights to the US from 10 airports in eight countries from carrying laptop computers, tablets and other electronic devices larger than cellphones in the plane cabins.

The 10 airports are in Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East.

Britain later imposed a similar restriction for incoming flights from six countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

The move, which forces passengers to put such electronic devices into checked luggage, came as counter-terrorism officials held concerns that terrorist groups were thinking of placing bombs disguised as batteries in such devices.

A bomb which blew a hole in the fuselage of a Somalian airline in February last year, killing one person, is believed to have been built into a laptop computer carried in the plane's passenger cabin.

Dozens of terrorist cells discuss such attacks "on any given day", said Mr Kelly.

"You just watch them over time and see if they go from talking to actually doing something. There is a real threat all of the time.

"If we cannot get our arms around the current threat, you can expect additional protocol adjustments in the very near future."

Meanwhile, Europe's aviation regulator expressed its concern on Wednesday over the risk of battery fires in the cargo holds of passenger planes.

The European Aviation Safety Agency, which is responsible for flight safety in 32 countries, said personal electronic devices (PED) carry a fire risk due to their lithium batteries, and should preferably be carried inside passenger cabins.

Responding to the European agency's concern, the US Transportation Safety Administration said it "coordinated closely with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration)" on the logistics of the cabin ban.

It also said the FAA had provided information to airlines regarding the appropriate handling of electronics and lithium batteries.

However, the European agency warned in a bulletin: "When the carriage of PEDs in the cabin is not allowed, it leads to a significant increase of the number of PEDs in the cargo compartment.

"Certain precautions should therefore be observed to mitigate the risk of accidental fire in the cargo hold."

The agency added that computers in checked baggage must be completely switched off and "well protected from accidental activation".

The European safety recommendation is not mandatory, but is likely to rekindle a debate about the new rules, which some airline chiefs have criticised as inconsistent or ineffective.

A group representing 38,000 European pilots said last week that it was "seriously concerned" about the ban, on the grounds that it could create new safety risks.

The European Aviation Safety Agency's warning highlights the struggle to juggle rules on safety with increasingly stringent security protections and the wider risk that rules to solve one problem can lead to another.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2017, with the headline 'US may apply cabin baggage restrictions to more airports'. Print Edition | Subscribe