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Wait-and-see approach is still best on new US security requirements

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The new security requirements for all US-bound flights—affecting 180 airlines and 280 airports worldwide—announced June 28 by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appear to be largely benign for the global airline business…at least for now. However, the foundation is in place for the new standards—which have not been publicly defined—to be problematic for airlines down the road.

At first blush, the new requirements appear to have solved, rather than created, a problem. Within eight days of the new standards being announced, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Istanbul Ataturk and Doha were removed from the list of 10 airports from which US-bound passengers had been prohibited from carrying on large personal electronic devices (PEDs) since March. Abu Dhabi was always the oddest inclusion on the so-called laptop ban list given that it has a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) pre-clearance facility that US-bound passengers pass through. Indeed, not 72 hours had passed after the announcement of the new requirements before the laptop ban was lifted there.

Given the fast turnaround, my view is that Abu Dhabi International Airport’s already existing security protocols (with perhaps some minor tweaks) were likely certified by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as being compliant. And not much new of significance could have been put in place at the other three airports—all of which were already known for rigorous security—before they were removed from the laptop ban list. So as a mechanism for DHS and TSA to inspect and approve airports’ security systems, the new requirements appear to be an improvement over the laptop ban that was in place and the wider laptop ban that was being contemplated.

But, considering US homeland security secretary John Kelly’s proclamation that “those who choose not to cooperate or are slow to adopt these measures could be subject to other restrictions—including a ban on electronic devices on their airplanes or even a suspension of their flights to the United States,” there is reason for airlines throughout the world to be concerned.

For starters, the new requirements have not been specifically spelled out and DHS has said it will not discuss details publicly. What if six months from now DHS declares that Airport A is not in compliance with the new rules and Airline B, which hubs at the airport, is now subject to a laptop ban or, worse, a ban on flights to the US? When DHS is asked why, and how the airport/airline can get compliant, it can simply respond, “We can’t discuss that publicly” and move on.

The major airports in the UAE, Qatar and Turkey were quick to get in line because (1) they were already compliant or almost compliant given their high levels of existing security; (2) they are owned and controlled by governments that understand the importance of aviation to their economies; and (3) understand the importance of their airlines’ connections to the US. But what if a government either disagrees with what DHS is asking it to do or does not have the resources to implement the new standards?

Airlines are in a difficult spot. DHS has no jurisdiction to regulate airports or its counterpart security agencies in other countries. But it can regulate airlines that fly into the US—by placing restrictions on those airlines’ US-bound flights or banning them from the US altogether. So a dispute between DHS and another country over airport security standards could leave an airline out in the cold—even if that airline would prefer to comply with the wishes of DHS.

That’s why, while the early days of the era of the new US security standards appear to be largely positive for the airline industry, it’s best to take a wait-and-see approach. Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and Istanbul Ataturk are among the top airports in the world and are located in countries dedicated to their airports and airlines. It is unrealistic to expect that every airport with flights to the US will have the will and/or the resources to replicate what those airports are doing, which DHS will surely hold up as models for compliance with its new requirements. How flexible will DHS be? Time will tell. 

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