Airports lobby group ACI Europe has said widening the ban on laptops and tablets in hand luggage will have “highly disruptive and far-reaching consequences,” as European and US officials prepared to meet May 17.

The European Commission confirmed it will meet with US officials in Brussels May 17 to “jointly assess the potential risks and work towards a common approach to address possible developing threats.”

This meeting was convened following a May 9 letter from European Union (EU) commissioners Violeta Bulc and Dimitris Avramopoulos. The session is scheduled for the whole afternoon and is expected to cover a possible extension of the US ban on large personal electronic devices (PEDs) in hand luggage, such as laptop and tablet computers.

The ban currently applies to US-bound flights from some Middle East and North African airports, but there is talk of it being extended to include transatlantic flights from an unspecified number of European airports.

ACI Europe: 'Significant implications'

ACI Europe said speculation around the ban reveals “a lack of meaningful security cooperation between the EU and the US,” which could compromise trust in aviation security.

“If the ban was to go ahead, it would hit the continent’s busiest airports hardest, where a significant portion of US-bound flights would need to be canceled at short notice. For the flights that could still operate there would be delays, which would compromise onward connections in the US,” ACI Europe director general Olivier Jankovec said.

There are 3,684 direct flights between Europe and the US each week, operated across 59 European airports. Roughly 50% of this total is operated from five key airports: London Heathrow (761 weekly flights), Paris Charles de Gaulle (353 flights), Frankfurt (291 flights), Amsterdam (242 flights) and Dublin (179 flights).

“Based on a sample of European airports, the number of passengers carrying PEDs is estimated to be between 60% and 90%,” ACI Europe said.

The body warned that an extension will have significant implications for airport and airline operations, including ad-hoc gate screening for each flight, special loading processes to get the electronic devices into the hold of aircraft and possible grouping of US flight gates for the new measures.

“This would require the deployment of a very large number of additional security staff. Appropriate staff is not readily available and would need to be trained. Also, as for anyone working in the restricted area of a European airport, new staff would need to first obtain security clearance from the competent national authorities—a process that usually takes several weeks,” ACI Europe said.

“In addition to the extended boarding processing times involved by the extra screening, this would generate inefficiencies in infrastructure capacity utilization, with potentially spill-over effects on other flights.”

ACI Europe called on US and EU authorities to share information, jointly review the threat and carefully consider whether additional security measures are needed. If they are, they should be risk-based, credible, proportionate and effective.

“More than ever, given the geopolitical environment we are in, we need the EU and the US to work hand-in-hand on this. This is what the traveling public—and citizens—rightly expect from their governments, as it is the only way to stand a chance of defeating terrorism,” Jankovec said.

Several other bodies have warned that the ban creates further safety worries, because of the risk of uncontained lithium battery fires in the hold.

“Beyond the immediate operational impact, we are concerned about the consequences that such a ban would have on demand for transatlantic air travel—and ultimately connectivity between Europe and the US. The fact that one of the affected Gulf airlines has downsized its operations the US is indeed worrying—and points to a wider and lasting economic impact.”

ACI Europe represents over 500 airports in 45 European countries.

IATA urges adopting short-term measures

On May 16, IATA DG and CEO Alexandre de Juniac sent a letter to Bulc and US Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly expressing “serious concern regarding the negative impact any expansion of the ban on PEDs in the aircraft cabin will have on airline passengers, commercial aviation and the global economy.”

De Juniac urged regulators to adopt the following short-term measures to address the current PED threat, which were identified May 10 at an IATA-led Security Summit in Washington DC:

  • Utilize Explosive Trace Detection (ETD) at primary and secondary checkpoints. It is a widely available and simple tool that can be used on a continuous and random basis on passengers and bags at the boarding gate, without undue negative consequences to service and facilitation levels
  • Conduct trace analysis on the PED, visually inspect the device for signs of tampering and determine the provenance of the device by questioning the passenger as to the purposes for carrying a device. This may include turning on the device.
  • Deploy behavioral detection officers both land and airside and deploy canines as a deterrent.
  • Recognize trusted traveler programs and the identification of high risk/low risk passengers.
  • Increase training of screeners to detect this PED-based threat.

Victoria Moores