The U.S. and Europe differ over whether to expand a ban on electronics larger than cellphones in carry-on bags aboard airliners — an example of how security officials can disagree about how to respond to the same threat.
John Kelly, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has considered expanding a March electronics ban on flights from 10 airports in the Middle East and Africa to Europe or all international flights. “The threats are real,” Kelly told reporters Friday at Washington Reagan National Airport.
But Europeans, who share his concerns about making sure flights are secure, have resisted a broader ban. In weeks of discussions with U.S. counterparts, they have explored other methods, such as improved screening at airport checkpoints, to thwart a bombing.
Different approaches also followed the initial electronics ban in March.
The U.S. focused on flights of nine foreign airlines from 10 airports in eight countries. But the United Kingdom followed with a ban on flights including domestic airlines from six countries, two of which were different from the U.S. list. And other European countries didn’t adopt any ban.
“Intelligence is always subject to interpretation – there are no slam dunks,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, director of the National Transportation Security Center at the Mineta Transportation Institute. “Not all nations feel equally threatened. There may be some differences in how each nation judges its own vulnerabilities or attractiveness as a target.”
Nobody disputes the risk of bombs carried into the cabin. A Russian Metrojet flight was destroyed over Egypt in October 2015 because of a suspected soda-can bomb. And a Somalian Daallo flight landed safely after a laptop bomb blew a hole in the side of the plane in February 2016.
The latest security concern focuses on the Islamic State planting an explosive inside a battery that still allows a laptop to be turned on, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because officials aren’t authorized to speak publicly about intelligence matters.
The debate is over how to cope with that threat, given the cost and inconvenience an electronics ban would cause. Airlines raised concerns about losing $1 billion in productivity a year from depriving travelers of electronics during flights. Some safety experts and pilots have warned against moving more electronics to checked luggage because of the risk of rare fires sparked by lithium-ion batteries that could go undetected in cargo.
Airline traffic in March showed a 2.8% decline for the routes to the U.S. flown by Middle East carriers — the first decline in seven years, according to the International Air Transport Association, a trade group for 265 carriers. Alexandre de Juniac, the airline group’s CEO, said Thursday that “there are indications that passengers are avoiding routes where the large (electronics) ban is in place.”
As security officials debate how to respond, each country’s national mood and the culture’s philosophy about privacy also play a role in the decision.
More than half the U.S. (51%) is “very” or “somewhat” worried about themselves or their family becoming a victim of terrorism – the highest since 59% expressed concern after the attacks Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Gallup poll. Terror concerns have been climbing steadily since 2012, according to Gallup.
“The anxiety levels are fairly high,” Jenkins said. “We are in a wagon-circling mood right now.”
Another contrast, however, is that Europe traditionally had more privacy concerns than the U.S. Europe resisted for years providing as much information about airline passengers heading to the U.S. as security officials sought.
“I think the Europeans most likely are more willing to assume more risk based on their philosophy surrounding privacy and how they generally look at their population,” said James Norton, a former deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2008 and now an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. “That is also probably weighing in the back of their minds: What are the Americans thinking? If we do this, what’s after that?”
Technology could differ subtly. Checkpoint screening equipment is made by just a few companies, so the technology is similar in the U.S. and Europe. But security experts say the equipment can be enhanced through software and algorithms that help identify suspicious items.
“What’s under the hood could be completely different,” said Jeffrey Price, a professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver who is security expert and author. “Are they using the latest and greatest upgrades, using the latest algorithms and mathematical modeling, or are they using what they got on the cheap?”
One reason to steer electronics to checked luggage is because those bags are screened more closely, with CT scanners that examine a bag from all angles. The X-ray machines used for carry-on bags have a more limited view. CT scanners are being tested as an addition to checkpoint lanes, but certifying and buying the machines will be expensive and could take time.
“But ultimately, we have to spend what we need to spend to find the technology to protect air travelers,” Kelly told a Senate hearing May 25 about his department’s budget. He said current technology for people and bags “are just about at their limit, but we are looking at advancing that.”
In the meantime, the Transportation Security Administration is testing a procedure at 10 airports for having travelers remove all electronics from their carry-on bags. The protocol could be expanded nationwide. Reducing the clutter allows closer scrutiny.
“These bags are full to the brim,” Norton said. “It makes it a difficult challenger for the officers who are doing passenger screening and also baggage screening to find some of these objects at the speed that people want to walk through the line.”
Security officials have been moving deliberately for the latest changes, in contrast to previous decisions announced nearly overnight that confused and alarmed travelers.
The current restrictions against liquids in carry-on bags began as a full ban in 2006 for flights between the U.S. and Britain, after 24 people were arrested in a plot to blow up as many as 10 planes with liquid explosives. TSA later refined the liquids restriction to allow containers up to 3.4 ounces in carry-on bags.
“While it would be inconvenient, you want to err on the side of caution at least in the short term,” said Norton, who worked for the department at the time and is now president of security firm Play-Action Strategies. “You obviously had a threat and you knew it was operational, but you didn’t know if that was it – that you got everybody.”
Options to avoid a ban could get creative. Every device could be swabbed for explosive residue, Norton said, but that would slow down lines. Taking a page of drug smuggling in cars, Jenkins said officers could weigh electronics, to compare against the manufacturer’s specifications to see if any explosives had been added.
“People try to figure out how to buy down the risk with creative things at checkpoints or different ways of addressing the problem, so that we can agree to do the same thing,” Jenkins said. Somewhere is possibly a compromise.”
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