Emerging Issues in Security

New TSA Travel Rules May Put Stress on U.S. Travelers Returning from Overseas

Recent changes and pending new ones in travel restrictions for airline passengers coming from certain Middle East countries have banned the possession of laptop computers inside the cabin of the plane. More changes may be forthcoming, including adding 71 additional international airports to the current list.

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The current restriction on the use of laptops in airline cabins began in March and affects flights originating from airports in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey going to the United States. The laptop ban covers about 350 flights a week, originating from 10 airports, mostly in the Middle East. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it is considering widening the laptop ban to include dozens of additional airports in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. This would affect nearly 400 flights per day from cities that fly to the United States, causing what airline security professionals would be a significant challenge in terms of new screening protocols. The DHS says this expansion of the existing list could be avoided if the airports and the countries that run them will agree to enhanced security measures at their preboarding screening sites.

Those who fly within the United States already know they must remove their shoes during the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening process largely because of the unsuccessful efforts of British-born Richard Reid, who tried to ignite the explosives hidden in his shoe in December 2001 on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami. Reid was subdued by other passengers on the flight. He was sentenced to three life terms plus 110 years. It’s still not possible to bring bottled liquids on board U.S. airplanes beyond 3.4 ounces.

A related issue with both laptops and smartphones is the presence of lithium ion batteries, in either the cargo hold of the plane or in the cabin. Over 100 incidents of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 catching on fire last year led the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and TSA to ban the smartphone from being carried on or packed into luggage on U.S. airlines. Since laptops use similar batteries, the concern is not only the possibility of a bomb triggered by the laptop battery but also a fire in either the cabin or in the cargo hold. On May 30, a JetBlue flight bound from New York City to San Francisco was diverted to Michigan after a laptop caught fire in the cabin. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao recently testified at a Senate hearing about the battery concern, saying, “This is a difficult issue that the administration is grappling with, especially from a security point of view.”

DHS Secretary John Kelly recently told a House panel that his office was “looking at ways that we think we can mitigate the threat [of a laptop-hidden bomb to airliners and passengers].” The United Kingdom recently initiated a similar laptop ban, affecting different air routes than the U.S. ban.