Politico: Europe, airlines await word on new U.S. laptop ban

An expected expansion of the Trump administration’s laptop ban to include flights from Europe is causing heartburn among the travel industry and some European officials, who fear a logistical nightmare for millions of trans-Atlantic passengers just ahead of the summer vacation season.

Briefings Thursday for U.S. senators and the major domestic airlines ended with no announcements from the Department of Homeland Security about changes to the restrictions, which already prohibit passengers from carrying laptops, tablets and e-readers into the cabins of planes flying to the U.S. from 10 Middle Eastern airports. But European airline officials are “preparing behind the scenes” for DHS to announce that it’s expanding the ban to at least some airports there, an official from the trade group Airlines for Europe told POLITICO.

DHS has said this week that it is considering such an expansion, although it has sought to tamp down rumors that a move is imminent.

The initial ban — imposed amid worries about terrorists concealing explosives in consumer electronics — affected routes that U.S. airlines don’t serve, including direct flights from Istanbul, Cairo and Dubai. In contrast, expanding the prohibition to Europe would affect domestic U.S. airlines and roil the flying experience for many more passengers, who would have to stow their gadgets in checked luggage.

About 3,257 flights per week are scheduled to leave EU airports bound for the U.S. this summer, according to the Brussels-based lobbying group Airports Council International Europe.

“It goes without saying that we could see demand for trans-Atlantic routes drop, as holidaymakers in both the U.S. and Europe don’t feel safe enough to travel,” said Cecilia Minges, a spokeswoman for AirHelp, a company that helps consumers with compensation claims against airlines.

In Europe, industry groups expressed concerns that unilateral U.S. restrictions could augur a further breakdown in trans-Atlantic cooperation.

“This is worrying,” ACI Europe director Olivier Jankovec said. “Given the environment we are in today, effective security is more than ever conditioned on international cooperation and intelligence-sharing. Yet, this is not what is happening.”

European Commission Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos asked U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao this week for a meeting on any restrictions before they take effect. “It is in our common interest that we work closely together to address developing threats in aviation, in advance of any potential application of new security measures,” they wrote in a letter obtained by POLITICO.

Whatever the disruption new restrictions cause, passengers may just have to adjust, U.S. Travel Association spokesman Jonathan Grella said Thursday.

Travelers are “more resilient than we often think — plus the consequences of a major attack on the transportation system hardly need to be repeated,” Grella said. But his group also asked that authorities clearly communicate any new policies and “actively seek protocols that neutralize threats while minimizing disruption.”

President Donald Trump has criticized some European security practices, accusing German Chancellor Angela Merkel of making “a catastrophic mistake” by welcoming Syrian refugees, and alleging that terrorist attacks occur “all over Europe … to a point where it’s not even being reported.”

But James Norton, a former deputy assistant secretary at DHS under President George W. Bush, said any decision to extend the ban would involve concrete intelligence indicating a threat.

The initial Middle Eastern electronics ban in March followed intelligence reports that terrorist groups are continuing to plot attacks against commercial aviation, U.S. officials said at the time. In one incident, terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State claimed to have hidden improvised explosives in a soda can aboard a Russian airliner that crashed in the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015.

Some reports have suggested that terrorist groups are exploring ways to plant bombs inside laptops, concealed in such a way that the computer can still function.

Still, questions exist about the details of applying a ban on the electronic devices to thousands more flights from Europe. Those include whether it would be safe to put lots of laptops and their potentially flammable lithium batteries in planes’ cargo holds, where a fire could spark and rage unchecked.

On top of that, many business travelers would be loath to surrender easily stolen computers loaded with sensitive corporate data. That’s not to mention parents who depend on “Frozen” and “Finding Dory” to keep their children soothed during a trans-Atlantic flight.

Michael McCormick, executive director of the Global Business Travel Association, questioned Thursday whether such gadget bans are effective in deterring terrorism, when compared with efforts such as enrolling more passengers in trusted-traveler programs.

Kelly briefed senators behind closed doors on emerging threats Thursday, including those related to aviation, but Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) would not discuss whether the laptop ban came up. Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines similarly declined to comment.

Committee member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who skipped the briefing, has supported the electronics restriction on flights originating from Africa and the Middle East. But when asked Thursday if he would get behind DHS efforts to add more airports to the ban, he said: “I don’t know about that.”

At the time the Middle East ban was announced, travel industry groups complained that DHS hadn’t provided enough details about how the order would be carried out. They also cited estimates that half of business travelers prefer to work while in flight.

Some luxury airlines affected by the initial ban found ways to lessen the inconvenience: Emirates said it would offer a “laptop and tablet handling service” that would “carefully” pack the passengers’ devices and return them at the destination, while Etihad provided loaner iPads to customers in first and business classes. But such perks are unlikely for the vast majority of U.S. passengers.

“There’s obviously an inconvenience here,” said transportation policy expert Ken Button, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. “People travel with laptops these days, and it’s as simple as that — they expect to be able to travel with them, and to stop that in the cabin is going to be a bit of a problem.”

But overall, he said, people will simply have to accept the new rules.

“I don’t deny people will get mad,” Button said. “People get mad on planes all over. My perspective is that flying is still a lot faster, cheaper and more convenient than it was 30-40 years ago, even with all the inspections we go through.”