U.S. weighs a ban on laptops on flights from Europe

Department of Homeland Security officials met with airline industry representatives Thursday to discuss the possibility of expanding a ban on laptop computers and other large electronic devices as carry-ons on planes flying to the U.S. from Europe.

Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly ended the meeting with no decision to adopt an expansion but promised to continue to study the idea.

“We are continually evaluating threats and if a determination is made that a change to our layers of seen and unseen aviation security measures should be made, as we have done in the past, we will work closely with our private sector and public sector partners to ultimately do what is best for the safety of the travelling public,” the agency said in a statement.

The potential move would expand restrictions imposed in March by the U.S. and Britain on electronic devices larger than a smartphone in passenger cabins of flights from eight Middle Eastern and African countries.

Earlier in the day, the European Union called for urgent meetings with U.S. officials to discuss any potential expansion.

“We propose that meetings are held as a matter of urgency, both at political and technical level, to jointly assess the risk and review possible common measures,” according to a letter written by Violeta Bulc, EU transport commissioner, and Dimitris Avramopoulos, commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship. The letter, seen by Reuters, was addressed to Kelly and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

The U.S. ban already in place requires passengers on international flights from 10 airports in the Middle East and Africa to put all laptop computers, electronic tablets and other devices larger than a smartphone into luggage checked into the cargo compartment.

Senior U.S. administration officials have declined to elaborate on any threats that may have prompted the ban, saying only that commercial airlines are still a target of terrorists who are trying to smuggle explosives in electronic devices.

CNN has reported that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies believe that the Islamic State group and other terrorist organizations have developed new ways to plant explosives in electronic devices that could evade some common airport security screening methods.

CNN cited unnamed intelligence officials saying that terrorists would have a more difficult time detonating an explosive remotely and that placing laptops and other devices in the cargo bay might reduce damage even if a bomb were to explode.

But safety experts have raised questions about the potential for batteries in electronic devices to catch fire in the hold.

The current ban by the U.S. imposes the restrictions on flights from Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Morocco. Los Angeles International Airport gets direct flights from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

Discussion of expanding the ban to flights from Europe comes as the summer travel season approaches and at a time when the travel industry has reported strong demand for international travel.

Travel industry experts had previously worried that President Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban travel from several Middle Eastern countries would send a message that the U.S. is not welcoming to foreign visitors.

Travel data so far has not shown a significant drop in international travel to the U.S., but industry officials remain worried.

Jonathan Grella, executive vice president for the U.S. Travel Assn., said travel industry officials want to protect travelers from terrorist threats but also want to be informed by government officials on why new security measures are imposed.

“It is critical that the U.S. government clearly communicate the details of this new policy and the reasons why it’s needed, continually reassess it to ensure it remains relevant and effective, and actively seek protocols that neutralize threats while minimizing disruption for legitimate business and leisure travelers,” he said in a statement released Thursday.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

Twitter: @hugomartin.

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UPDATES:

3:30 p.m.: This article was updated to show that no decision was made during the meeting to expand the electronics ban.

2:40 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from the European Union.

12:15 p.m.: This article was updated to include statements from the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Travel Assn. as well as previous expressions of concern from safety experts.

This article was originally published at 10:40 a.m.

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