Fears Grow As DHS Officials Consider Expanding Airline Laptop Ban

Jun 3, 2017
Originally published on June 3, 2017 10:35 am
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The Department of Homeland Security may soon prohibit airline passengers from carrying laptops on flights to the United States from Europe. That means travelers on hundreds of flights each day would have to check those devices in their luggage. But European leaders, airlines and others in the travel industry say that such a ban could have a chilling effect on travel. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Since March, the Trump administration has banned laptops, iPads and other electronic devices larger than a smartphone from airplane cabins on U.S.-bound flights from 10 cities in the Middle East and Africa. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly says terrorists have been working on developing smaller, thinner bombs that could hide inside a laptop and could conceivably bring down a plane. On Fox News Sunday this past weekend, Kelly called it a sophisticated threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

JOHN KELLY: That's really the thing that they're obsessed with, the terrorists, the idea of knocking down an airplane in flight, particularly if it's a U.S. carrier, particularly if it's full of mostly U.S. folks, people.

SCHAPER: Homeland Security officials, including Kelly himself, have been discussing with European leaders whether to expand the restrictions on electronic devices to include flights between the U.S. and Europe. A Homeland Security spokesman says that possible expansion is still on the table despite reports to the contrary this week as officials also look into other ways to improve aviation security globally. Experts say the threat is real and that explosives hidden in a laptop could get through carry-on screening equipment in some countries. Jeff Price is an expert in aviation security at Metropolitan State University in Denver. He says more countries need to employ better screening techniques.

JEFF PRICE: If you can't find the explosive device or the prohibited item with the existing technology, then get better technology. And this is technology that's been around for a long time.

SCHAPER: Stowing laptops in a plane's baggage hold raises another concern - the risk of lithium ion laptop batteries catching fire. That happened Tuesday night on a cross-country JetBlue flight. The plane was diverted because of smoke emitting from a carry-on bag holding the electronic device. But the crew was able to quickly put out the fire. That might not be the case if the laptop is packed away in the cargo hold. And Michael McCormick of the Global Business Travel Association says business travelers in particular are concerned about handing over their laptops.

MICHAEL MCCORMICK: We've been trained now by our companies - and have been for some time - that you really never let your laptop or any of your electronics out of your site.

SCHAPER: McCormick says many travelers fear their laptops could be damaged or stolen, that sensitive data could be hacked or that they'd just be stuck on a flight lasting eight, 10, even 12 hours or longer without being able to work.

MCCORMICK: We've become accustomed to being in touch and being productive all the time. So clearly, productivity would also be affected.

SCHAPER: McCormick says many business people may just hold meetings over Skype or other digital platforms instead of traveling overseas. That would hurt airlines, hotels and other travel-related businesses both in the departing and destination countries. Mccormack says, just the uncertainty over the possible laptop ban, combined with other Trump administration restrictions on travel, is already proving disruptive and costly.

MCCORMICK: We expect the U.S. to lose about $1.3 billion in travel-related expenditures this year as a result of the cumulative effect of all these polices largely based on travel that is being canceled or deferred coming from Europe and the Middle East.

SCHAPER: If the laptop ban is expanded to include flights to and from Europe, Homeland Security officials say it will not likely happen this week, but it still remains a possibility during the busy summer travel season. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.