The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is reportedly planning to impose strict new security standards for all airlines flying into the U.S. starting next month – a move that could lead to confusion, uncertainty and longer lines for passengers depending on how responsive airlines are in meeting the requirements.
According to various news services, DHS is ordering the new standards as an alternative to expanding its current “laptop ban” – a rule that currently bars passengers from carrying electronic devices larger than a smartphone into the cabins of U.S.-bound non-stop flights from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa.
However, DHS is also said to be threatening to extend the laptop ban to any airlines or airports that don’t meet its new security safeguards. The agency has been threatening for months to expand the laptop ban to European airports over concerns that terrorist groups are perfecting methods for hiding explosives in laptop computers. Reports suggested that DHS could even decide to withhold U.S. landing rights from non-compliant airlines.
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The agency hasn’t said publicly exactly what its new standards will involve, but they would apply for the flights of 180 airlines from 280 airports in 105 countries rather than just those considered to pose the highest risk of a terrorist threat.
News reports indicated that the new requirements might include more sophisticated explosive trace detection scanning for passengers’ carry-ons, greater use of bomb-sniffing dogs, and more intensive screening of airport workers and even passengers themselves.
According to a report from Reuters, DHS will give airlines just 21 days to start using more effective explosive screening methods, and 120 days to implement other new security measures like enhanced screening of individual passengers.
At the same time, DHS officials have reportedly said that the 10 airports where the laptop ban currently applies could have that ban lifted if they implement the new security measures.
DHS officials have met repeatedly with their European counterparts in recent weeks over the agency’s proposed expansion of the laptop ban. European security officials have expressed concerns that requiring large numbers of travelers to put their electronic devices into checked luggage could pose a greater risk of fires in the hold of an aircraft, since the lithium batteries on those devices are known to sometimes ignite spontaneously.
If the reports are correct that DHS will only allow three weeks for the implementation of more effective explosives screening, that raises the question of how the agency hopes to enforce its new requirements. Will it have enough personnel to inspect hundreds of airport locations overseas in the short term? Will the new standards be specific enough for clear decisions about which locations and airlines are compliant? Will they allow for any exemptions or extensions? And how will passengers know if a new laptop ban is about to be suddenly imposed on their flight to the U.S.?
DHS officials told USA Today they expect 99 percent of airlines will meet the new requirements in the allotted time frames. But with the peak summer season for international travel already under way, this could make for some interesting situations at overseas airports. Stay tuned.