How Europe Saved Global Air Travel From the U.S. Laptop Ban

The Trump administration's threat was a knee-jerk response to a threat that did not foresee the consequences. One phone call averted catastrophe.

At least five airlines in North Africa and the Middle East that for four months were prevented by the Department of Homeland Security from allowing passengers to carry laptops and tablets into the cabin on flights to the US have now had that ban lifted. Airlines in Morocco and Egypt have yet to be removed from the ban.

The peremptory imposition of the ban in March caused chaos for passengers and significant financial harm to the airlines. It was then feared that the ban would soon be extended to all direct flights from Europe to the US, creating a devastating effect on the summer travel season. That threat has, for the moment, been avoided by a new DHS demand that 280 airports worldwide come into compliance with new standards for security screening.

Even so, the DHS actions have exposed conflicting views between the U.S. and agencies in other parts of the world about how to keep international aviation operating normally as it faces a continuing threat from terrorists intent on finding any weaknesses in airport security.

European airlines and regulators were dismayed in May when, as The Daily Beast first disclosed, the DHS proposed to extend a ban on laptops and tablets first imposed in March on 10 airports in North Africa and the Middle East to all European airports serving the U.S.

As the first word of the ban reached the headquarters of the European Union in Brussels an extraordinarily firm opponent emerged in the person of Violeta Bulc, the European commissioner for transportation. Bulc immediately called Washington and raised with U.S. officials something that she knew airline pilots were particularly alarmed by: the risk of transferring a potential danger from the cabin to the cargo hold.

The frequency of incidents in cabins involving fires triggered by the lithium-ion batteries in laptops and tablets was already well documented by the FAA, but this risk didn’t appear to have been taken into account by the DHS when it pressed for a ban. Two cargo airplanes had been lost, with their crews, in fires originating in shipments of lithium-ion batteries and the European pilots’ unions pointed out that forcing airlines to stow thousands of electronic devices in the cargo holds of passenger flights made those flights less safe.

European objections to the ban were summed up by Jens Flottau, an editor of Aviation Week based in Europe, who wrote: “Dealing with security threats by reacting to specific incidents makes no sense. Denying the wholesale use of laptops in cabins is akin to forcing all travelers to go barefoot on flights following the shoe bomber incident in December 2011.”

As the Europeans pushed back on a ban a DHS spokesperson told the Daily Beast “there is no timeline and there is no deadline.” In fact, not only the officials in Brussels but the airlines and the authorities in charge of Europe’s airports were dismayed by what they considered was a hastily reflexive move by Homeland Security secretary John Kelly and his officials.

Nevertheless, the Europeans didn’t want to appear to be underestimating the terrorist threat. After all, Brussels itself had suffered one of the worst recent terror attacks at its airport and a railway station when 32 people were killed and more than 300 were injured. European officials insisted that the screening at major airports was as effective as it was in the U.S. and that if there were deficiencies they would work with the DHS to fix them and avoid the draconian step of a blanket laptop ban.

And so it was that the ban was avoided when, late in June, the DHS announced that “enhanced screening” would be introduced not only in Europe but at 280 airports in 105 countries around the world. “Security is my number one concern,” Secretary Kelly said, adding, “Our enemies are adaptive and we have to be adaptive too.”

The DHS’s original and suddenly imposed ban on laptops and tablets in the cabins of flights to the U.S. from North Africa and Middle East had forewarned the Europeans of the scale of the damage that can be caused to air travel by unexpected moves provoked by new security threats. As a result of that ban several airlines that were until recently regarded as game-changers suffered a precipitate loss of passengers.

The largest of these airlines, Emirates based in Dubai, had built a substantial and loyal following of business travelers – the biggest profit generators – flying between the Gulf states and 12 major cities including New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The airline won awards for the quality of its service, particularly in the business and first-class cabins where access to personal computers and tablets was vital.

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Many of those business passengers circumvented the ban by flying to Europe where they could then board flights to U.S. without having to put their devices in checked baggage.

Just a month after the ban went into force Emirates’ bookings for flights to the U.S. had fallen by a third. It cut flights to five of its U.S. destinations, removing 20 percent of the 50 airplanes used on those routes.

The ban was not the sole cause of Emirates’ pain. The crash in oil prices had already weakened demand for travel in the region and the problem was further exacerbated by tighter vetting of Gulf residents flying to the U.S. In May Emirates disclosed the full cost of the crisis: its profits had fallen by 82 percent in the past year.

For competitors of Emirates in Europe and America the collapse in their business induced a hard-to-conceal bout of schadenfreude. More than any other airline, Emirates had seriously disrupted the post-war business model that gave dominance of international markets to airlines based principally in North America and Europe.

Emirates became a global leader by turning Dubai — once a remote desert watering hole — into an international hub, exploiting the strategic logic of its position for connections between Asia, Africa and Europe, and by building a superior reputation for service. Two other Gulf airlines, Etihad, based in Abu Dhabi, and Qatar, based in Doha, rode the same wave and won the same kind of reputations for quality – Etihad, in particular, upped the standard of first class cabins to a level of opulence affordable only to the fattest of fat cats.

Etihad was the first of the Middle Eastern airlines to meet the DHS’s new standards for screening, allowing passengers to fly again with their laptops and tablets.  They have since been followed by Emirates, Turkish Airlines, Royal Jordanian Airlines and Kuwait, with Saudi Arabia expected to join them soon.

It is not clear whether all 280 the airports on the DHS list, particularly the smaller ones, will be able to satisfy American officials that their security is fit for purpose in the time allowed for compliance: “There are fairly aggressive timelines involved, partially because we are dealing with a known and evolving threat” David Lapan, a DHS spokesman, said in a briefing to reporters.

Seventeen percent of flights from Europe to the U.S. leave from London’s Heathrow, with 3 million passengers a year heading for New York and 1.6 million for Los Angeles. Airlines at that airport have said that passengers will notice additional screening of hand luggage at the gates, but Heathrow is known to have some of the most advanced screening of both hand and checked luggage. The same is true for other major hubs like Charles de Gaulle in Paris, Schipol in Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

The “known and evolving threat” cited by the DHS is the ability of bombers to miniaturize an explosive charge so that it can be incorporated in the batteries of laptops and tablets.

For terrorists the explosive of choice is pentaerythritol tetranitate, or PETN. Miniaturized bombs using PETN are only effective if the bomber is in a window seat where the blast is strong enough to breach the fuselage skin and cause an explosive decompression in the cabin. The bomber also has to be able to deploy a non-metallic powder as a detonator.

And it now seems that even the smallest amount of PETN is now detectable by state-of-the-art screening. Airport security authorities are obviously not going to disclose what their defenses are against these bombers, but in 2014 a team of scientists at UC Berkeley led by Professor Xiang Zhang published a paper outlining a new device called a plasmon laser sensor that they said dramatically increased the sensitivity of screening of minute concentrations of explosives like PETN.

The most visible screening procedures involve hand-held explosive detectors that are in use at airports in at least 40 countries but they are not thought by experts to be effective against the laptop mini-bombs. Plasmon laser sensors and other new technologies are more likely to be deployed invisibly as devices are screened in the machines that are part of an airport’s main lines of defense.

However, some security experts are puzzled by the underlying assumption of the American pressure for enhanced screening, implying that the same level of threat does not exist on domestic flights in the U.S. Or, indeed, at airports serving foreign destinations. As any frequent flier in the U.S. can testify, the visible personal screening at airports by the TSA is highly variable, from the rigoroU.S. to the casual. In some airports laptops and tablets are separately screened, in others they remain in carry-on bags.

It is certainly true that the most proficient bomb makers remain in the Middle East: for example, Ibrahim al-Asiri, the master bomber of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular, who now competes with others who have emerged in the laboratories of ISIS and are thought to be more lethal even with ISIS in retreat as they disperse to secret locations.

Yet can we be so sure that home-grown “sleeper” terrorists, surrounded as they are by easily-accessible technical resources, will not be equally ingenious in their efforts to find the unforeseen gap in our defenses?