The U.S. government is in an unenviable position. On the one hand, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) feels strongly enough about intelligence regarding terrorists potentially hiding explosives inside personal electronic devices (PEDs) that it now requires that laptops, tablets and other PEDs larger than a cell phone be carried in checked baggage on passenger flights from 10 Middle East and North African airports to the United States.
And for the past few weeks, DHS has been talking to European authorities about the possibility of extending the restrictions to cover U.S.-bound flights from Europe, which would increase the scope of the ban from one affecting a few hundred flights a week to one possibly affecting a few hundred flights per day.
On the other hand, the United States is well aware that aviation safety experts recommend that laptops, tablets and similar devices be carried in carry-on bags in the passenger cabin so if a problem occurs with a device’s lithium battery, it can be handled by flight crew trained for such a situation. The Federal Aviation Administration says there have been at least 160 smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosion incidents involving lithium batteries carried as cargo or baggage on aircraft or at airports since March 1991. There have been at least 17 such incidents so far this year.
On May 30, DHS took the somewhat unusual step of announcing that it was not announcing a laptop ban extension, at least not yet. In addressing a conversation between DHS Secretary John Kelly and two ranking European officials, DHS said that “[w]hile a much-discussed expansion of the ban on large electronic devices in the cabin on flights to the United States was not announced today, the secretary made it clear that an expansion is still on the table,” DHS said.
“Secretary Kelly affirmed he will implement any and all measures necessary to secure commercial aircraft flying to the United States — including prohibiting large electronic devices from the passenger cabin — if the intelligence and threat level warrant it.”
For the time being, the commercial aviation industry is still in limbo. An extended ban on PEDs could be announced at any time. Or, it might not be. The industry can offer input, but, as far as the United States is concerned, the decision is up to Kelly and DHS. So it’s imperative that while the industry waits, it spends the time analyzing the increased risk posed by more PEDs being carried in cargo holds and figuring out what strategies will most effectively mitigate that risk.