US may ban laptops in cabins on all international flights

The United States might ban laptops from aircraft cabins on all flights into and out of the country as part of a ramped-up effort to protect against potential security threats, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in TV interviews.

Stricter checks on carry-on luggage also likely with some airports testing new procedures

WASHINGTON • Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has said he may ban laptop computers in the cabins of all international flights into and out of the United States amid continuing terrorist threats to bring down planes.

"That is really the thing that they are obsessed with, the terrorists: The idea of knocking down an airplane in flight, particularly if it is a US carrier, particularly if it is full of mostly US folk," Mr Kelly said on the Fox News Sunday programme.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which has barred devices larger than mobile phones on flights from 10 Middle East and North African airports since March, has been in talks with European Commission officials about extending a prohibition to US-bound flights from the continent despite concerns from the European Union.

"It is a real sophisticated threat, and I will reserve that decision until we see where it is going," Mr Kelly said of when a final ruling might come and what it might be.

He said the department's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) "might and likely will" intensify scrutiny of carry-on luggage as well because travellers are packing more into them to avoid airlines' bag check-in fees.

"The more you stuff in there, the less the TSA professionals who are looking at what is in those bags through the monitors" are able to discern about the bags' contents, he said. "What we are doing now is working out the tactics, techniques and procedures, if you will, in a few airports to find out exactly how to do that with the least amount of inconvenience to the traveller."

Mr Kelly also alluded to the possibility that improved bag-screening devices could soon alleviate the need for such strict procedures. "There are new technologies down the road, not too far down the road, that we will rely on," he said.

At the airports testing new procedures, passengers are asked to remove additional items from carry-on bags for separate screenings. Asked whether the government would expand such measures nationwide, Mr Kelly said: "We might, and likely will."

Airlines are concerned a broad ban on laptops may erode customer demand. But none wants an incident aboard one of its planes. "Whatever comes out, we will have to comply with," United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz told the firm's annual meeting last week.

Mr Kelly also alluded to the possibility that improved bag-screening devices could soon alleviate the need for such strict procedures.

"There are new technologies down the road, not too far down the road, that we will rely on," he said.

At least four of the largest firms making such devices have said recently they are developing scanners so much better at detecting explosives than X-ray machines that passengers could leave laptops, other electronics and liquids in their bags.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2017, with the headline 'US may ban laptops in cabins on all international flights'. Print Edition | Subscribe