US bans laptops, tablets from cabins on flights from Middle East, North Africa

The United States is poised to ban large electronic devices such as laptops or cameras on board flights from up to a dozen Middle East nations.
The United States is poised to ban large electronic devices such as laptops or cameras on board flights from up to a dozen Middle East nations. PHOTO: SAUDIA AIRLINES/FACEBOOK

WASHINGTON - Travellers flying to the US from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa will have to store most larger electronic devices in checked baggage under a new rule issued by the Trump administration.

The Department of Homeland Security issued an emergency directive at 3am New York time on Tuesday (3pm Tuesday, Singapore time) to carriers that fly between the airports located in eight countries and the US, reported Bloomberg.

Any electronic device larger than a mobile phone – such as laptop computers and portable DVD players – will have to go in the airplane’s cargo hold in a move to address potential security threats, according to administration officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity Monday evening.

The airports are located in eight countries - Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Morocco. 

The affected airports are: Queen Alia International Airport, Cairo International Airport, Ataturk International Airport, King Abdulaziz International Airport, King Khalid International Airport, Kuwait International Airport, Mohammed V Airport, Hamad International Airport, Dubai International Airport, and Abu Dhabi International Airport.

Officials did not list any immediate, specific threats on the call, but rather said the new rule was based on “evaluated intelligence.” Such electronic devices have been implicated in previous attacks on airlines, one official said, pointing to a February 2016 flight by Somali-owned Daallo Airlines in which a passenger hid a bomb in a laptop computer.

TERRORIST TARGETS

“We have reason to be concerned about attempts by terrorist groups to circumvent aviation security and terrorist groups continue to target aviation interests,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement on Tuesday.  

“Implementing additional security measures enhances our ability to mitigate further attempts against the overseas aviation industry.”

US domestic flights or flights originating in the US are not affected, according to the statement. Among the nine airlines that will have to comply are three Persian Gulf-area carriers that have grown rapidly in recent years: Emirates, Etihad Airways PJSC and Qatar Airways Ltd. The major US airlines frequently complain that the three Gulf carriers have used generous government subsidies to buy airplanes and compete unfairly.

Other airlines affected by the rule are: Royal Jordanian, EgyptAir, Turkish Airlines, Saudia Airlines, Kuwait Airways and Royal Air Maroc.

The US began talking with affected airlines Sunday, one US official on the briefing call said. Airlines will have 96 hours to comply with the directive, and airlines that refuse could see their authority to fly to the US revoked.

The Homeland Security Department statement suggested that some items, such as mobile phones, were left off the restricted list for reasons of practicality.

“They can’t cover everything, they can’t control all vulnerabilities,” said Richard Bloom, an aviation security and terrorism expert at Embry – Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.

Some of the devices that will be stored in cargo holds will contain lithium ion batteries, which have been implicated in airplane fires. The Federal Aviation Administration bans the storing of spare lithium ion batteries that are not installed from cargo holds. The International Civil Aviation Organization also advised global regulators last year to ban carrying bulk shipments of lithium ion batteries in the cargo holds of passenger jets. 

But CNN quoted a US aviation official as saying that electronic devices spread out across a person's luggage pose far less of a threat than palettes of lithium ion batteries.

There are also advantages to screening items in checked baggage instead of as carry-on luggage, reported Associated Press. It said most major airports in the US have a computer tomography or CT scanner for checked baggage, which creates a detailed picture of a bag’s contents. They can warn an operator of potentially dangerous material, and may provide better security than the X-ray machines used to screen passengers and their carry-on bags.

But the measures are likely to have limited success in curbing the terrorist threat since people will still be able to connect via hubs such as Frankfurt to target American passengers or reach the US, said Mark Martin, an aviation consultant in Dubai. He added that “when it comes to aviation, there’s a very thin line between paranoia and precaution”.

The move would be the latest by President Donald Trump’s administration to limit what it says are national security threats coming from a range of nations in the Middle East and Africa. The president earlier this month signed a second travel ban restricting entry into the US by people from six predominantly Muslim countries. That order, like the first, has been held up by the courts.