It seems almost unthinkable: a flight from New York to Boston where you cannot carry on your laptop. But Frances Townsend, former assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, offered up the possibility at a travel security summit last week.
While speaking at the U.S Travel Association (USTA) event about how Etihad Airways complied quickly to the United States imposed electronics ban by providing travelers with laptops in flight, she asked the industry to consider how it would adapt to passenger needs if the ban were expanded to more flights.
Currently, the U.S. rule applies to outbound flights from 10 international airports in the Middle East. A similar, though slightly different ban, applies to U.K. flights, and Canada recently announced it is tightening security for Canada-bound flights as well.
“What if that happens to U.S. domestic flights?” Townshend asked. “I don’t think that is out of the question. Threats morph over time. Terrorists respond. They reverse-engineer. If that same laptop checked into the belly of an international flight is put in the body of the domestic connection, that’s a threat.”
American Society of Travel Agents senior vice president of government and public affairs Eben Peck agrees with Townshend. “There is a very real chance that the ban on in-cabin electronics on certain inbound flights could be expanded,” he told TMR. “[DHS] Secretary Kelly said as much during an April 5 Senate hearing on border security.”
In fact, Kelly said at that hearing, the effects of the electronics ban are already being felt in the United States, with enhanced screening on international flights. Like others, ASTA is concerned about the balance the country needs to strike between legitimate threats and burdens on the travel industry that could impede travel – or scare away travelers outright.
“While security is and must always be paramount when it comes to air travel, our members have raised a number of questions about the existing ban and its potential for disruption to business and leisure travelers, issues related to checking expensive electronics while traveling overseas and the possibility that it may spread to additional airports/carriers,” Peck said.
On March 31, ASTA sent a letter to Secretary Kelly asking a series of questions about the existing ban, including how long it will be in effect, the differences between the U.S. and the U.K. bans, the risk associated with checking lithium ion batteries, and other issues.
Threats are morphing constantly
CNN also reported in March that terrorists are developing new bombs that could be hidden in laptops to evade airport security screening.
Townshend suggested that the travel industry think differently, and move the “protective barrier” further away from airports and aircraft. She recommended, for example, that manufacturers of electronic devices sit down with agencies like the DHS to find ways to engineer electronics to reduce the risk of their being used for terror.