Homeland Security tightens screening for all flights from abroad — but won’t ban laptops

Homeland Security officials announced new security measures for all United States-bound flights, including tougher screening of laptops.
(Anwar Amro / AFP/Getty Images)

Homeland Security officials announced stricter passenger screening and other tougher security measures Wednesday for all commercial flights entering the United States, but said they would not bar laptop computers and e-readers in carry-on luggage as airlines had feared.

The new rules will impact about 2,000 flights a day from 280 airports in 105 countries, a move that could make international flying more onerous just as the busy summer travel season starts.

Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly told a security conference in Washington that the enhanced measures would be “both seen and unseen.” He did not say when they will begin but said they will be phased in to give airlines and airports time to adjust.


Kelly said changes will include tougher screening of laptops and other personal electronic devices at airports, more thorough vetting of travelers, greater use of explosive-sniffing dogs, expanded exchanges of terrorist watch lists, and new systems to help prevent insider attacks by airline employees.

“It is time to raise the global baseline of aviation security,” Kelly said. “We cannot play international whack-a-mole with every new threat.”

He said terrorist groups still consider downing passenger jets as “the crown jewel target.”

“The threat has not diminished,” he said. “In fact, I am concerned that we are seeing renewed interest on the part of terrorist groups to go after the aviation sector — from bombing aircraft to attacking airports on the ground, as we saw in Brussels and Istanbul.”

If international carriers fail to adopt the new measures, Homeland Security could ban electronic devices larger than cellphones from those airlines’ U.S.-bound flights or even suspend their flights. Kelly said he expected all airlines would cooperate.

The new rules got a mixed reaction from airline industry officials.

Nicholas E. Calio, president of Airlines for America, the trade group that represents the nation’s carriers, complained that the new measures “should have been subject to a greater degree of collaboration and coordination to avoid the significant operational disruptions and unnecessarily frustrating consequences for the traveling public that appear likely to happen.”

Other airline officials said some of the upgrades already are in place at high-profile international airports but smaller airports with less intense security would need to add them.

They also said it is too early to say if the new measures will affect air travel demand, which was forecast to grow by 4% this summer on U.S.-based airlines thanks to improving economic conditions, higher household net worth and lower airfares.

“We are working to minimize any potential impact this may have to our customers,” said Michael Thomas, a spokesman for Delta Air Lines. He added that Delta officials are happy the laptop ban was not imposed.

“This does give us some clear direction, which is helpful,” he said.

The move to tighten security follows intelligence, reportedly gathered from Islamic State in Syria by Israeli spy services, suggesting a lethal new threat from bombs that could be concealed in digital devices and that could evade detection by airport screening devices.

On March 21, U.S. and British authorities banned electronic devices larger than a cellphone in cabins on U.S.-bound flights from eight Muslim-majority countries in North Africa and the Middle East, saying terrorists were seeking “innovative methods” to bring down commercial jetliners.

Since then, Kelly and his aides have huddled with their counterparts overseas, as well as with representative of major airlines, to discuss whether to expand the ban around the globe.

Airlines protested that a broad laptop ban would inconvenience passengers and not remove the threat. Aviation experts and European security officials warned that putting laptops in cargo holds would pose other dangers because the lithium batteries could start fires.

Kelly told a House committee this month that the department was considering extending the ban to 71 other airports overseas.

But he ultimately decided it made more sense to tighten screening across the board instead of focusing on laptops or “chasing after each item” that might be used to bring down a jetliner, senior Homeland Security officials said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to brief reporters, said Kelly worked with airlines to find ways to improve screening without unduly inconveniencing passengers.

“Intensive doesn’t always mean slower,” said one official. “In some cases, airlines have been doing these things at international airports for some time.”

The officials said more security dogs, which sniff for explosives, may be used. And they said airlines and airports may institute pre-check programs like those approved by the Transportation Security Administration for use in U.S. airports.

The officials said restrictions on 10 initial airports would be lifted once airlines in those countries satisfy the new security protocols, officials said.

Airport authorities in the eight affected countries — Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates — have been told about the new security measures and will put them in place to get the ban lifted, the officials said.

In a statement, the United Arab Emirates ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, vowed to “strongly support and cooperate fully” with the Homeland Security rules, which he called “good news” for travelers on flights originating in or transiting the giant airport in Dubai.

Kelly said the March ban “was focused on a real threat” identified by U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies. The 10 airports were selected because they showed up most frequently in “chatter” picked up by surveillance, he said.

In 1988, a bomb hidden in a radio cassette player exploded aboard a Pan Am jet flying over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 passengers and crew members. The plot was blamed on Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, who was deposed and killed in 2011.

In 2010, powerful bombs hidden in printer ink cartridges were placed aboard two cargo jets headed from Yemen to Chicago, but were found before they exploded. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula later claimed responsibility for the plot.

Tanfani reported from Washington and Martin reported from Los Angeles.

Twitter: @jtanfani