The US government is imposing broad new demands for increased airport security on flights to America from other countries in an attempt to combat the threat of terrorists hiding bombs in laptops.
Airlines operating from Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports, which are part of the current laptop ban, could be set for a reprieve on the US laptop ban if new demands are successful, according to a US official.
The measures by the Department of Homeland Security represent one of the most sweeping security upgrades in the past decade but stop short of a threatened ban on large electronics in aircraft cabins. It will apply to an average of 325,000 passengers a day flying to the US from 280 airports in 105 countries, according to the agency.
"We are not standing on the sidelines as fanatics hatch new plots," Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in Washington Wednesday. "It is time that we raise the global baseline of aviation security.”
The goal of the latest action was to react to intelligence showing terrorist groups have become more sophisticated in their bomb-making efforts and could hide explosives in a laptop or other electronic devices.
The measures will include enhanced screening of electronic devices, more thorough vetting of passengers, increased use of bomb-sniffing dogs and measures to mitigate the potential threat posed by insider attacks, Kelly said. The actions will be both seen and unseen, he added.
The actions sought by DHS will be “far more aggressive” than the current standard screening, said Representative John Katko, a New York Republican who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Transportation Security and received a briefing from the agency.
Welcome news for UAE travellers
“The nature of the screening is going to be quite intense,” Katko said.
The measures build on a ban of electronic devices larger than mobile phones that was imposed in March for US-bound flights originating from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa. In that ban, devices could be stored in checked bags, which are more thoroughly screened for explosives.
The announcement offers the first hope that airports caught in the March ban can resume normal operations.
If global hubs such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi impose the new security regime, passengers flying to the US can once again bring their laptops aboard planes, according to a Homeland Security official who declined to be named discussing details.
Almost all airports, particularly those in developed nations that already have sophisticated security measures, should be able to meet the new requirements, according to the agency.
If a nation or an airline declines to impose the security actions or can’t, passengers could be forced to give up their electronics, or flights could be banned altogether, Kelly said.
The Transportation Security Administration has already begun similar security measures at domestic airports aimed at electronic devices, according to the official.
The announcement that the ban on electronics may eventually end for flights from Dubai and Abu Dhabi was cheered by the UAE Embassy in Washington.
"Today’s decision is good news for travellers originating from or connecting through UAE airports on flights to the US,” Yousef Al Otaiba, the country’s ambassador, said in an emailed statement.
At least part of the enhanced security may involve use of newer screening technology, according to the official.
The latest action would be one of the most significant and widespread security enhancements since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, said Randall Larsen, founder of the Institute for Homeland Security. It appeared to rank with the ban on liquids and the body scanning required after a terrorist smuggled a bomb in his underwear.
“It’s a pretty big one when you’re talking about that many airports and airlines,” Larsen said.
Wednesday’s announcement followed months of discussions over extending a ban on laptops with airlines and other nations. The European Commission and many airlines had pushed back against US threats to extend the ban.
Reaction to the security actions was generally positive by industry groups and countries that had feared a broader electronics ban.
The International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing 265 airlines around the world, said in a statement it “welcomes” the decision.
“The aggressive implementation time line will, however, be challenging,” Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO said in the statement. “Meeting it will require a continued team effort of government and industry stakeholders.”
No precise deadline
DHS didn’t release a precise deadline. Airlines will be asked to impose new security in phases, with short- and long-term goals, the agency official said. They are likely to be imposed by this summer.
Airlines for America, the trade group for large carriers, said it recognised the need for security enhancements but predicted travel disruptions would result.
"We believe that the development of the security directive should have been subject to a greater degree of collaboration and coordination to avoid the significant operational disruptions and unnecessarily frustrating consequences for the travelling public that appear likely to happen,” the group’s president, Nicholas Calio, said in a statement.
American Airlines Group earlier this month began the first US test of scanners that produce three-dimensional pictures of bags, providing a more detailed view that can detect explosives better than the X-ray machines currently used. The TSA is also conducting a separate test of a similar device at another airport.
American is investing nearly $6 million to expand the program through a partnership with Analogic Corp. The technology uses computed tomography borrowed from the medical field, which captures hundreds of X-ray images of an object.
JetBlue Airways Corp. and Delta are also testing facial- and fingerprint-recognition technology at two US airports to replace boarding passes, building on industry efforts to increase security and ease passage through congested airports.
Another measure to enhance security at airports outside the US is encouraging nations to install so-called pre-screening centres. At a handful of airports around the world such as Montreal, the US conducts heightened screening and customs checks at the departure point, which gives officials greater confidence in security, according to the agency.For all the latest transport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.