Analysis: Left to our own devices

Analysis: Left to our own devices

Enhanced screening of laptops, tablets, Kindles is unlikely to prove the ‘final’ word on aviation security. Ian Taylor reports

Qatar Airways joined Etihad, Emirates and Turkish Airlines in winning a lifting of the ban on electronic devices in carry-on luggage on flights to the US this week.

The US ban, imposed in March on the home carriers from 10 airports in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, remains in force on other airlines including Saudia of Saudi Arabia which said it should see the ban lifted later this month.

That is the upside, and it is a big upside given the concern over the past few months that the laptop cabin ban would be extended to US flights from Europe.

A series of meetings between EU and US security officials and lobbying by airline association Iata appear to have done the trick in forestalling an extended ban and coming up with a work around.

UK business newspaper the Financial Times noted it “marks a victory for EU officials and airlines that campaigned against such a move”.

The downside is that the US now requires almost 200 airlines and 280 airports to meet new, enhanced security procedures to combat the threat of laptop bombs being smuggled on to aircraft.

The heightened security measures include more intensive screening, increased vetting of passengers, additional dog sniffers, the widespread introduction of ‘next generation’ technology and a series of “unseen measures” in passenger areas and around aircraft on the ground.

A senior Department of Homeland Security official described the measures as “raising the bar globally”, saying: “Carriers will be given specific directions.

“We believe every airline and every airport in the world can meet these standards in a short period if they choose to do so.”

The measures will affect about 325,000 passengers a day on flights to the US, who can expect not only more intense screening at airport security but also at boarding gates where airlines will be responsible for additional checks on laptops.

An airport official suggested there would be more random searches of passengers and luggage, and more swab-testing of bags.

US-bound passengers are already advised to turn up at airports earlier than for other destinations, but analysts warned two hours may not be sufficient to ensure passage through security in time for a flight.

Airlines which fail to comply risk being fined or banned from carrying laptops anywhere on US-bound aircraft or barred from the US altogether.

There seems little doubt the security threat has increased, with the authorities in an arms race with would-be terrorists.

US officials described the threat as “urgent and evolving”, amid plenty of evidence of the increasing sophistication of bomb-making techniques in Iraq and elsewhere.

But the specific threat of a laptop bomb which can evade existing airport security screening appears to have been passed to the US by Israeli intelligence.

Announcing the measures, secretary for homeland security John Kelly declared: “We cannot play international whack-a-mole with each new threat. We must put in place new measures across the board.”

The department gave airlines three weeks from near the end of June to implement some of the procedures and 120 days for the rest.

The reaction of airlines and airports was generally sanguine – hardly surprising in light of the alternative – although Iata director general Alexandre de Juniac warned: “The aggressive implementation timeline with be challenging.”

London Heathrow, the largest international hub for US-bound flights, faces the biggest challenge with 761 flights a week to the US.

By comparison, Paris Charles de Gaulle has 353 and Frankfurt 291. London’s second long-haul airport, Gatwick, operates only about 20 flights a week to the US.

IAG-owned British Airways is by some way the biggest operator to the US from Heathrow. Yet Willie Walsh, IAG chief executive, suggested the impact would be “marginal”.

He said. “The airline industry is very capable of adapting to changes in security regulations.”

However, there will be costs attached. Airport association ACI Europe warned the costs would be “quite significant” and these will inevitably be passed on in fares.

An ACI Europe spokesman told the Financial Times: “In Europe, the costs will ultimately fall on airports, airlines and air travellers, unless national governments assist with the funding.”

At the same time, not everyone was happy with the laptop security compromise.

Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) chief Greeley Koch said: “The Trump administration’s vague travel security policies continue to vex the business travel community.

“While these new screening procedures are far preferable to an outright electronic device ban, we still need clarity on what this looks like in practice.

“How onerous will these new protocols be for travellers and airlines? What if an airport or airline has difficulty complying – does that lead to a ban on electronics in the cabin?”

He warned: “This policy has the potential to become a de facto device ban.”

Koch may well be right. We already know the answer to the question ‘What if an airport or airline has difficulty complying’. It will be a ban.

But the alternative is worse, as is being blown out of the sky. Whether it will mark the end of ‘whack a mole’ is another question.

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