U.S. may ban laptops in passenger cabins on all flights from Europe

The Department of Homeland Security is considering a ban on laptops in passenger cabins on all flights from Europe. Computers would be checked as luggage. The move would affect all major U.S. airlines, including American Airlines, which has a trans-Atlantic gateway in Philadelphia.

The Department of Homeland Security is likely to expand a ban on laptops in the passenger cabins on all commercial flights to the United States from Europe.

The ban, now in effect on flights from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa, would affect major U.S. carriers, such as American Airlines, which has a hub and a transatlantic gateway at Philadelphia International Airport.

Department of Homeland Security officials have met behind the scenes with airline-industry officials to discuss security measures and “what kind of shape this would take,” said Andrew Sheivachman, senior writer at Skift, a travel news website.

“The airlines are obviously very upset because this is going to hurt their business, and people aren’t going to want to travel if they can’t have all their stuff with them,” Sheivachman said. “I think the airlines are pushing back because this is bad for them.”

In March, the United States banned laptops on direct flights to this country originating from 10 airports in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey because of concerns that terrorists could convert electronic devices taken onto aircraft into bombs. Britain also imposed laptop restrictions on some routes.

An extension of the initial ban would have a “real dampening effect” on travel to and from Europe just ahead of the peak summer travel season, said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which is based in Radnor.

Business travelers, who use their laptops to work on long flights, may cut down on international travel, Mitchell said, noting, “If you were flying twice a month to London, you may just go once.” For airlines, it could be an economic disaster, he said: “If you lose four, five, or six business travelers who pay $8,000 for a transatlantic flight, you’re in trouble.”

The expanded ban was first reported by the Daily Beast based on interviews with European security officials. If passengers are barred from traveling to the United States with electronic devices in the cabin, computers would be checked as luggage.

Storing laptops in the cargo hold raises another risk: lithium battery fires that could create an explosion in midair and bring down an airplane.

“The idea is take the laptops away so if there’s a terrorist on board they can’t detonate it in the cabin,” Sheivachman said. “But you are creating a whole new problem by sticking all these batteries in one place, in the hold of the airplane.”

On Thursday, the Transportation Security Administration said, "We have not made any decisions on expanding the electronics ban; however, we are continuously assessing security directives based on intelligence and will make changes when necessary to keep travelers safe."

A TSA spokesman said, "Nothing is going to be announced this week. I'm not going to comment on a time line."

When the original ban was announced, Persian Gulf carriers including Qatar Airways, which has a daily flight between Philadelphia and Doha, Qatar, began offering their passengers complimentary laptops and allowed travelers to use personal electronic devices at the gate until they boarded the aircraft.

The Daily Beast reported in March that the original ban came after intelligence was gathered during a raid on al-Qaeda in Yemen in January. Bomb makers had figured out how to insert an explosive device into batteries that was powerful enough to destroy an airplane.

“If there is a legitimate terror threat, the flying public needs to take it seriously and adjust to the new protocols as best they can," the U.S. Travel Association said in a statement Thursday.

“Still, it is critical that the U.S. government clearly communicate the details of this new policy, and the reasons why it is needed” while “minimizing disruption for legitimate business and leisure travelers," the group said.