ATW Editor's Blog

The UK’s laptop security predicament

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Gradually, business returns closer to normal for those airlines and airports that were affected by the US government’s poorly conceived laptop ban in the cabins of in-bound flights from 10 airports, most of them in the Middle East.

Since the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced at the end of June new, heightened security screening rules for all international flights bound for the US, it has also begun lifting the laptop carry-on ban it implemented in March as airports comply with the new rules.  That’s good news for Emirates, Etihad and Qatar, which made huge efforts to minimize hassle for affected passengers, but which still saw drops in their US traffic.

Those airlines, and Turkish, are now permitted to let passengers bring their laptops and electronic devices onboard since the US has deemed their home airports compliant with its new screening rules.

Good security is critical, of course, but it must also be the right security. DHS’ laptop ban failed the “right security” test in several ways. It was implemented without consultation with those affected and who would have to enforce it; it was a unilateral solution when aviation security, to be effective, must be a global, networked system; even if it was not the intent, it looked discriminatory because of the mostly Middle East, Muslim countries it targeted; it created market distortions. Most worrisome of all, it compromised safety by introducing a potential fire hazard because so many lithium battery-powered devices were now in the cargo hold.

DHS will never say it was a mistake, of course, but it was a mistaken approach to what is undoubtedly a very real problem – terrorists who are still working on new ways to bring down an airliner because the publicity factor of such an act remains, in DHS secretary John Kelly’s own words, “the crown jewel target”.

The new security rules, therefore, are a better solution. They have been reached after extensive consultation with industry. But they still pose questions. Can they be implemented without causing long delays and chaos in the 105 countries and 280 airports that will be affected – involving 180 airlines, 2100 daily flights and an average of 325,000 daily passengers?

The Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) provided those numbers and many of its member airlines are concerned. “Implementation of these new security directives will necessitate a number of procedural and operational changes by airlines and airports around the world. Airlines, airports and the relevant government authorities will need to work closely together to avoid unnecessary disruption to the travelling public,” AAPA director general Andrew Herdman noted.

Also, it’s puzzling why the new rules apply to inbound flights to the US, but not outbound. Strong as US airport security now is, if there are new technologies being pursued to potentially slip explosives through the passenger screening process, then shouldn’t the new screening rules apply to the US also? And why target only international flights? The US is the world’s largest domestic aviation market and most terrorist incidents in the US since 9/11 have been inflicted by American citizens living in the US.

Finally, there’s the UK security question. Soon after the US implemented its laptop ban in March, the UK issued a similar ban on flights to Britain from a list of six Middle East and African countries. The UK ban appeared to have been prompted by the US ban, but the two countries’ intelligence authorities apparently did not agree on where the threat lay; they had different target lists.

However, as the US lifts its laptop ban, the UK ban stays in place. A UK Department of Transportation spokesman confirmed to ATW this week that no changes were imminent and rather stiffly dismissed the US’ new rules (which, of course, apply to all US flights from any UK airports) with this comment: “It is for the US to determine its own security measures based on its own assessments, just as we do ourselves.”

Could it be that, as the only other country in the world that followed the US’ laptop ban, the UK is now trying to find a save-face way to make it look like its security decisions are, indeed, its own?

Karen Walker karen.walker@penton.com

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