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Laptop ban not expanded to flights from Europe, but option 'still on the table'

The Department of Homeland Security released this photo of a TSA agent at an airport security checkpoint in March 2017. (DHS/MGN)

Passengers on flights from Europe to the U.S. can continue carrying their laptops on board for now, but Department of Homeland Security officials say “a range of potential seen and unseen enhancements” are under consideration to “raise the bar” for aviation security as the summer travel season shifts into high gear.

Secretary John Kelly informed European Union officials Tuesday that the ban on large electronics, currently impacting flights to the U.S. from ten airports in eight countries, will not be extended to incoming flights from Europe and elsewhere.

A statement by DHS Press Secretary Dave Lapan emphasized that the expansion “is still on the table.”

“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,” Lapan said.

Kelly had said Sunday that he might order the change because terrorists are “obsessed” with taking down a U.S. carrier’s plane in flight.

"We are still following the intelligence and are in the process of defining this," Kelly said on “Fox News Sunday,” “but we're going to raise the bar generally speaking for aviation much higher than it is now."

One step DHS is considering is requiring passengers to unpack much more of their carry-on luggage for x-ray screening at checkpoints than they currently do. In addition to removing liquids and laptops, U.S. air travelers may soon have to unload other small electronics, food, and books to be scanned separately.

Ten airports began implementing these rules at some checkpoints over a year ago to evaluate their effectiveness and impact security lines. According to TSA, early data suggests the changes led to increased threat detection without slowing down screening.

Overstuffed bags have left screeners struggling to see what is inside, with electronics, books, and other large items obscuring objects beneath them. More powerful scanners are in development, but it would take a lot of time and money to make those available everywhere once they are tested.

Aviation security experts have concerns about both of these possible changes to TSA protocol, which, even if they are well-intentioned to address legitimate threats, could prove ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst.

“The original ban didn’t make any sense,” said Sheldon Jacobson, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois who has studied aviation security for 21 years.

He described it as reverting to “the stone ages of airport security” by focusing items rather than scrutinizing suspicious people.

“There are some elements of it that don’t make a lot of sense,” Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly, said.

He observed that someone flying from Israel through one of the eight affected countries would be subject to the ban, while someone traveling from one of those countries through an unaffected one might not be.

Jeff Price, an airport security consultant and professor of aviation management at Metropolitan State University of Denver, dismissed the prospect of a blanket ban on all large electronics on international flights as “a little bit of overkill,” but he added that some foreign airports might not be able to prevent the kind of attack terrorists were reportedly planning using explosives hidden in computers.

“What it really comes down to is, can an x-ray machine detect a bomb inside a laptop,” he said.

According to Price, European airports typically have more modern screening equipment than the countries where the original ban was enacted, so DHS may be less concerned about their ability to detect explosives. Politico reported that the potential risks of storing laptops’ lithium batteries in cargo holds also influenced the U.S. decision not to extend the ban.

“Do we want lithium batteries accidentally catching fire in the bowels of a plane?” asked Peter Tarlow, an expert on the effects of terrorism on the tourism industry. “Are we saving one danger by creating a new danger?”

Cassandra Robertson, director of the Center for Professional Ethics at Case Western Reserve University, shares that fear.

“My biggest concern is that it appears unlikely to increase traveler safety--and in fact may increase the risk of explosion by concentrating lithium batteries in the cargo compartment of the plane,” she said.

According to Robertson, the ban on large electronic devices is emblematic of the government’s flawed approach to aviation security in general. Unlike in other matters of public safety, she said politics at times takes precedence over the effectiveness of a policy.

“So much of the effort, I think, is a genuine attempt to reduce the risk of harm,” she said. “However, I think there is an added political consideration--the government also wants to be seen as having done everything within its power to prevent a terror attack.”

More thorough scans of carry-on luggage might make passengers safer once they get on the plane, but it may also slow down security lines and create larger crowds of people who have not gone through any screening at all. This could become an even easier target for terrorists.

“If it backs up the screening lines, then it just shifts the threat,” Price said.

However, he added that the problem is less with the luggage than the equipment being used to scan it.

“If we’ve got to make passengers start unpacking at the checkpoint…maybe we need a better machine,” he said.

Policies like this make flying a longer and less convenient process, and a less attractive option for those who can drive to their destination instead. However, Kaplan pointed out that driving is statistically much more dangerous than flying.

This effect is felt most in smaller markets where many flights are only a few hours to begin with.

“You can make it really safe to fly by doing things that are a really big hassle,” he said.

Tarlow warned that there is a tipping point at which travelers will decide flying is just not worth it. Nobody knows where that point is, but every new hurdle airlines and airports put in their way drives them closer to it.

“The airlines have done everything they can to make travel miserable and the TSA seems to be working with them,” he said.

So far, though, most fliers appear unfazed by the inconveniences. According to Marketwatch, a recent survey found 90 percent of Americans plan to travel this summer, and at least 84 percent of those travelers plan to fly.

News reports last summer were filled with frustrated passengers waiting on ridiculously long security lines, complaining about unreasonable delays, and missing flights despite arriving hours early. Experts say there are reasons to expect a better travel experience this summer—some TSA staffing issues have been resolved, for example—but that progress could be reversed if new security policies are implemented.

So what should beleaguered passengers do? In a press release on summer travel last week, the TSA had some advice, though much of it just boils down to “follow the rules.”

Some solutions aren’t cheap. Signing up for TSA Pre-Check could set you back $85, but that gets you five years of expedited screening with the luxury of keeping your shoes on and leaving your liquids in your bag.

TSA recommends checking bags “when feasible,” but with most airlines, that means an additional $25 fee. The press release also reiterates the rules and restrictions for screening liquids in carry-on luggage.

In addition, TSA offers several resources for fliers with questions about security. They can get live assistance via Twitter or Facebook Messenger, and those with disabilities or medical conditions can call the TSA Cares helpline to arrange assistance at security checkpoints.

Price also emphasized the importance of knowing and following the rules to increase the odds of a trouble-free trip.

“Basically they can educate themselves before they go to the airport about what is allowed, what’s not allowed,” he said.

Jacobson suggested TSA could make its own job easier by offering pre-check for free for those who travel more than three times per year. That would leave a much more manageable number of passengers who need to go through intensive screening.

“Pre-check is the gold standard of risk-based security,” he said. “It means you’re focusing on people rather than items.”

Ultimately, many of the problems and inconveniences that threaten to scare passengers away from air travel are the carriers’ own fault. Their profit-driven policies have unintended consequences.

“When you create check baggage fees, people who can avoid them will… None of these policies or decisions stands alone in a vacuum. They affect each other,” Jacobson said.

Price also placed blame for checkpoint delays on the checked bag fees, but he added that it is unrealistic to expect then to change policies just to make TSA’s job easier.

“That’s kind of one of those cause and effect things, but the airlines are not getting rid of those fees. They’re making way too much money on them,” he said.

Some airlines have floated the idea of fees for carry-on bags. Last fall, United introduced a new Basic Economy fare that does not include a carry-on bag. If a Basic Economy passenger brings a full-size carry-on to the gate, it will be checked and they will be charged an additional $25 handling fee.

“We have to be very careful to not create so many problems and so many difficulties that the public just gives up,” Tarlow said. “You can’t keep going to the well and not expect at some point it’s going to run dry.”

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