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Airlines Braced for Expansion of Trump Laptop Ban to Europe

Bloomberg, 11 May 2017
Airlines are preparing for an anticipated widening of a U.S. ban on bringing laptops and other large electronic devices on board planes bound for American airports. Officials from United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and industry trade group Airlines for America are scheduled to meet with Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly in Washington Thursday afternoon to discuss details of a possible expansion, according to three people familiar with the ongoing discussions.

It wasn’t clear whether there would be an immediate announcement of new electronics restrictions on flights to the U.S. from Europe or other airports, the people said. They asked not to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak about the meeting.

Air France-KLM Group and Deutsche Lufthansa AG are among carriers to say they’re making preparations for the moratorium on devices, including tablets and games consoles, to be expanded to their European hubs after initially targeting Mideast and African airports. The European Commission has written to President Donald Trump’s administration to urge cooperation on any new measures.

“We are in contact with our partners and the authorities, and we’re preparing for the possibility,” Air France spokeswoman Ulli Gendrot said by phone. “We understand that there’s a meeting in Washington with airlines on this topic today, so we should know more after that.”

Different Scenarios
Lufthansa has been working internally on different scenarios for responding to any extension of the ban, spokesman Helmut Tolksdorf said. Both companies have close ties to major U.S. operators, with Air France-KLM allied to Delta Air Lines Inc. and Lufthansa partnered with United Continental Holdings Inc.

U.S. airlines have been discussing a potential expansion of the ban with officials at Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration for several weeks, according to one of the U.S. people briefed on the talks.

The U.S. announced on March 21 that electronic devices larger than smartphones would be banned from cabins on flights originating from eight countries, impacting global hubs including Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Istanbul. The action, which affects major carriers such as Emirates, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines, resulted from fears that bombs capable of downing an airliner could be hidden in the devices.

A travel industry trade group, the U.S. Travel Association, called on Homeland Security officials to announce their plan as soon as possible. “It is critical that the U.S. government clearly communicate the details of this new policy and the reasons why it’s needed,” Jonathan Grella, the group’s spokesman, said in an email.

Grella urged the public to take the threat seriously. At the same time, security officials should seek new security protocols to better assess whether electronic devices contain bombs.

While a broadening of the restrictions could “only be a negative” for airlines, making on-time departure more challenging and adding costs for loaner devices, it might at least amount to a “zero-sum game” if applied universally to trans-Atlantic operators, said Mark Simpson, an analyst at Goodbody Stockbrokers in Dublin. Carriers impacted by the existing ban have reported a slide in U.S. load factors as some travelers take alternative routes, though that will become less of an option in the event of expanded curbs.

DHS Secretary Kelly and Representative John Katko, a New York Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation Security Subcommittee, have said in recent weeks that the initial measures were prompted by strong intelligence and that an expansion is possible.

A DHS spokesman added Tuesday that a wider rollout of the restrictions was being considered, but that a decision hadn’t been made. The department didn’t respond to an emailed request for more information on Wednesday.

EU Commissioners Dimitris Avramopoulos and Violeta Bulc have meanwhile written to their American counterparts about the matter. The communication says that the bloc has had “a long-standing and fruitful cooperation on security” with the U.S. and that the two should act together “to provide a joint response to shared threats,” spokeswoman Anna-Kaisa Itkonen said Thursday.

Airports Council International, which represents hubs around the world, said it has been liaising with bodies including the International Air Transport Association, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the European Commission and the DHS’s Transportation Security Administration in anticipation of the ban being extended.

“We’re trying to make sure that there is good coordination involving airports and airlines,” said Robert O’Meara, a spokesman for ACI Europe. “The key thing is to make sure the message is communicated in a coherent way.”

British Airways referred calls to the U.K. Department for Transport, which said it doesn’t discuss security measures or comment on speculation. Britain has imposed a laptops ban of its own affecting direct flights from six states.

Dubai-based Emirates said it’s unwilling to comment until an extension has been formally announced and it knows which European countries will be affected. The carrier has suggested the current ban is discriminatory, and is paring capacity to the U.S. as the measures impact occupancy.

Cheap Seats
Goodbody’s Simpson said that with at least 50 percent of business passengers wanting to work during flights, some could opt to downgrade to premium-economy berths where that’s not an option, hurting airline revenue. The wait at baggage claim for the collection of checked laptops is also a “big negative,” while handing over devices or using loaners may not be an option for some firms keen to safeguard sensitive information.

Shortly after the original ban was announced the Flight Safety Foundation, a leading aviation safety group, warned that it could create risks by shifting more lithium-battery powered devices to cargo holds. Lithium-powered batteries have been linked to fires that destroyed three cargo airliners and recent testing has shown they can burn and explode even with current fire suppression systems.

Officials are coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration to provide carriers with a bulletin on the proper handling of batteries, DHS spokeswoman Jenny Burke said last month.