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US to add extra airline security measures, won't expand laptop ban

US will avoid imposing laptop bans on European flights as prohibitions remain in effect for Middle East flights
US imposed restrictions on laptops in March on flights originating at 10 airports in eight Middle East countries (AFP)

The US announced on Wednesday it will implement tough new security rules for all airlines flying into the country, but held off on a threatened expansion of its carry-on laptop ban.

Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said evolving terror threats made it imperative to raise security standards for airlines from all countries, rather than take a piecemeal approach on personal electronics.

"We cannot play international whack-a-mole with each new threat. Instead, we must put in place new measures across the board to keep the traveling public safe and make it harder for terrorists to succeed," he said.

European and US officials told Reuters that airlines have 21 days to put in place increased explosive screening and have 120 days to comply with other security measures, including enhanced screening of airline passengers.

The US imposed restrictions on laptops in March on flights originating at 10 Middle East airports in eight countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey. They came amid fears that a concealed bomb could be installed in electronic devices taken aboard aircraft. Britain quickly followed suit with a similar set of restrictions.

Reuters reported earlier this month that the United States had suggested enhancements, including explosive trace detection screening, increased vetting of airport staff and additional detection dogs.

Weary flyers shrug as Middle East laptop ban takes off
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Since laptops are widely used in flight by business class passengers - who pay double or more than the average ticket price - the airline industry had feared expanding the ban could cut into revenue.

Airline officials said they would have to bear the brunt of expanded screening costs. Officials told Reuters they are concerned about adding new enhanced security measures to all of the roughly 280 airports that have direct flights to the United States rather than focus them on airports where threats are highest.

US airline stocks were higher on Wednesday, with United Airlines up 1.4 percent and Delta Air Lines and American Airlines Group each up 2.3 percent. None of the airlines immediately commented.

Starting in April, Kelly repeatedly said it was "likely" the laptop ban would expand to other airports - and even said in May the government could potentially expand the ban worldwide.

Kelly, who was speaking in Washington on Wednesday afternoon, said he planned a "step by step" security enhancement plan that included short-, medium- and longer-term improvements that would take at least a year to implement completely.

He said last week that airlines must take the issue seriously. "The threat is very real," he said.

Kelly met with senior airline executives in May and Homeland Security officials have had repeated meetings with US airline executives.

Robert Mann, analyst at RW Mann & Co, said if US officials had insisted on a expanded laptop ban, it could harm business travel.

He said new computer tomography or "CT" scanners being tested in Boston and Phoenix could help address long-term screening issues. Current screening of carry-on luggage "can’t tell the difference between a block of cheese, a romance novel and a block of Semtex plastic explosives because they’re all about the same density," Mann said.

One big issue facing policymakers is the potential safety implications related to past problems with laptop batteries and storing large numbers of laptops in the cargo hold.

US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said at a June Senate hearing that lithium ion batteries on airplanes can be a problem and pose a fire risk.