Since 9/11, security and aviation professionals have criticized Department of Homeland Security practices, calling it “security theater” more effective in creating an illusion of security than in actually assuring it. In fact, treating the millions of flyers who board an airplane every day as potential terrorists tests the vigilance of even the most conscientious TSA agents, making it more likely that the odd security risk could slip through undetected.
Over the past half-decade, however, the U.S. government began adopting more practical, intelligence-based screening programs that ease the way through airport security for children, seniors, members of the military and trusted travelers. According to the DHS, “a million passengers experience some form of expedited screening on a daily basis.”
The unraveling of this approach began on Tuesday when Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and the acting administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, Huban Gowadia, ordered a disruptive change.
Travelers flying to the United States from eight countries in the Middle East and North Africa will no longer be allowed to bring any electronic devices larger than a cell phone with them in the cabin. Laptops, e-readers and tablets, cameras and other gadgets must be placed in their checked baggage.
The ban will “impact about 350 scheduled flights a week, equivalent to about 2 percent of total international flights to the U.S.,” according to the calculation of the International Air Transport Association. Most notable among them are the A380 jumbo jets operated by Etihad and Emirates with their daily flights to several U.S. cities. Turkish, Qatar, Royal Jordanian, Egyptair and other Middle East carriers flying smaller planes are also impacted. American citizens on those flights must comply with the ban.
“Terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks,” the DHS said in a press release explaining the new order. The release said the ban was an attempt to address the possibility that explosive devices could be smuggled in consumer electronics.
One has to wonder why an explosive device in the cargo hold is less threatening than one in the passenger cabin but that was not explained in the statement issued by the DHS.
It is a curious omission because, forget about security — battery-powered devices are a known safety risk on airliners, as I’ve reported before in The New York Times.
Because the lithium ion battery-powered doodads are a fire hazard you are not allowed to pack spare batteries in your checked luggage. In the event a battery should catch fire, it would go undetected in the bowels of the airliner.
The TSA directive reverses that act of caution by pushing hundreds of lithium ion battery-powered devices into the cargo hold.
The action by DHS shows a disconnect between aviation’s security and safety risks that’s spreading. The United Kingdom issued a similar ban, albeit targeting fewer countries, after the U.S. announcement.
The emergency directive goes into effect on March 25, but the U.S. Travel Association is already pleading for the administration to rethink the order.
“As with all security policies, we further urge that this new security measure be continually reassessed moving forward to ensure it remains relevant and effective in the ever-shifting threat environment.” wrote the U.S. Travel Association.