Airlines waiting on laptop decision

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A decision on whether to ban laptops on most U.S.-bound flights remains up in the air as the travel industry heads into its busy summer travel season.

European officials were reportedly under the impression that the U.S. decided not to go through with the policy change on Tuesday, following weeks of intense negotiations and anxiety over the potential security measure.

But the Trump administration insisted this week that the idea is still on the table and that a final decision has not yet been made, leaving airports and airlines hanging in the balance.

Since the Department of Homeland Security banned large electronics on the cabins of inbound flights from 10 airports in the Middle East and Africa earlier this year, officials have maintained that the security protocol could be widened to include other parts of the world.

{mosads}The move comes amid increasing concern that terrorist groups are “aggressively pursuing innovative methods” to smuggle explosive devices onto commercial flights, according to senior administration officials.

Under the policy, passengers are prohibited from carrying electronic devices larger than a cellphone — such as laptops, tablets, cameras and portable DVD players — onto the cabins of select flights, but can still stow the items in checked luggage.

A major expansion of the laptop ban to include all European flights seemed imminent early last month, according to European officials and representatives in the airline industry.

But facing intense pushback from stakeholders, the U.S. agreed to hear the concerns of European officials before making a final decision.

DHS Secretary John Kelly held a conference call with a number of European ministers and members of the EU’s European Commission (EC) in what was described as a “very constructive exchange of views on the way forward between the U.S. and the EU,” according to an EC spokesperson.

Officials also held high-level talks in Brussels and Washington on the issue over the past few weeks, where European officials shared their concerns over storing more lithium ion-powered devices underneath the plane — something they fear could pose new safety threats. 

They also urged the Trump administration not to take unilateral action and to consider alternative options to the ban.

“Information should be shared, and … responses [to threats] should be common,” emphasized one commissioner to the U.S., according to an EC spokesperson.

It appeared the lobbying effort had worked, as European officials walked away from another conference call with DHS on Tuesday believing that the U.S. had decided to table the laptop ban — at least for now — according to Politico.

But David Lapan, a DHS spokesman, told reporters Thursday that Kelly is still collecting information, monitoring the threat environment and having discussions with stakeholders.

Adding another potential wrinkle to the debate is a recent laptop fire on a JetBlue flight earlier this week, which has further fueled concern over expanding the ban.

Lapan said, however, that the incident would not impact the department’s decision.

“We’ve been well aware of the concerns expressed by a number of stakeholders about the potential danger of electronic devices with lithium-ion batteries,” Lapan said. “Interesting … that there is a concern with the fire hazard with lithium-ion batteries, and that they’re still allowed on airplanes in the first place.”

Lapan added that it’s impossible to predict when a final decision will be made, but said an expansion of the ban could come down at any moment if Kelly finds it necessary to keep the public safe.

Such a move would roil the travel industry, which would need to make major adjustments in order to avoid the potential chaos and damage that could result from a laptop ban.

Expanding the policy to include Europe would affect a much larger slice of the inbound travel population: There are more than 350 flights from Europe to the U.S. every day. Of the major U.S. air carriers, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines would be hit the hardest.

Those airlines may want to offer workarounds to the policy, such as giving business and first-class passengers loaner laptops on flights or allowing travelers to check banned items at the gate.

Affected airports would also need to prepare for the major protocol change. They would need to adjust their gate allocation system for U.S.-bound flights, start the boarding process far earlier to accommodate the additional screening procedures, and hire and train additional staff to help conduct ramped-up screening.

A number of flights could be canceled and delayed in the wake of the possible new ban, airport groups have warned.

“If the ban was to go ahead, it would hit the continent’s busiest airports hardest,” said Olivier Jankovec, director general of Airports Council International (ACI) Europe. “We are concerned about the consequences that such a ban would have on demand for transatlantic air travel — and ultimately connectivity between Europe and the U.S.”

Rafael Bernal contributed to this report.

Tags Lithium-ion battery

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