Following a ban of in cabin electronic devices that are "larger than a smartphone" on flights entering the US from locations in eight majority-Muslim countries, it appears the White House wants to expand its curious policy. This morning, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told Fox News' Chris Wallace that he was considering applying the ban to all incoming international flights.
Here's a riddle. If a Trump policy targets random locations in the Middle East, and nobody can explain it, does anybody really know what's happening? It's a tough riddle because it's practically impossible to answer. Yet, this is our reality now.
In early May, US officials were reportedly considering banning laptops and other devices from carry-on luggage on flights coming from Europe. After a meeting with European officials, those plans were scrapped, at least temporarily. But Kelly's remarks this morning indicate that the administration may intend to put the program on steroids.
Wallace asked Secretary Kelly, point blank, "Are you going to ban laptops from the cabin on all international flights both into and out of the U.S.?" He responded that he "might." When asked to expand on that, Kelly said:
Well, there's a real threat. Numerous threats against aviation, that's really the thing that they are obsessed with, the terrorists, the idea of knocking down an aeroplane in flight, particularly if it's a US carrier, particularly if it's full of mostly US folks, people. It's real.
Wallace pressed Kelly to provide a timetable for when he "might" do this. Kelly responded with some boilerplate talk about terrorism and international cooperation:
We're still following the intelligence. The very, very good news is that we are working incredibly close with friends and partners around the world. We're going to, and in the process of defining this, but we are going to raise the bar for generally speaking aviation security much higher than it is now.
So — and there's new technologies down the road, not too far down the road that we will rely on. But it is a real sophisticated threat and I will reserve that decision until we see where it's going.
The White House has said that the initial ban on devices was established because of intelligence that points to terrorist organisations attempting to design explosives that would be the size of a laptop's battery. Critics, including The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 265 airlines, have argued that a larger ban would be extremely costly from the perspective of monetary loss and the loss of productivity.
It's unclear how effective this ban would be at preventing an explosive device from making its way onto a flight, and when the first ban was announced many felt it was just another way to discourage Muslims from travelling to the US. Expanding the ban might temper some of those criticisms but it could also increase the perception that the US would prefer to be isolated from the rest of the world.
Wallace then asked Kelly if he intends to follow through on reports that TSA screening procedures will be getting tougher. The agency has been testing a program that requires passengers to take more items out of their bags at certain airports. On this point, Kelly had a more definitive answer:
Yes, I mean, the reason we've done, TSA, of course, works for me. The reason we've done that is because of — people trying to avoid the $US25 ($34) or $US50 ($67) or whatever it is to check a bag are now stuffing your carry-on bags to the point of, you know — well, they can't get any more in there. So, the more you stuff in there, the less the TSA professionals that are looking at what's in those bags through the monitors, they can't tell what's in the bags anymore.
When asked again if he plans to implement the program nationwide, he said, "We might, and likely will."
The situation as described by Kelly is a bit of a catch-22. Checked baggage prices go up as expenses go up. Passengers stuff their carry-on luggage to avoid high fees. Longer waits in line increase expenses. And the cycle goes on. I've never gone through a TSA checkpoint without having to take out my electronic devices and run them separately, so it's tough to say what new procedures are really necessary. According to the Wall Street Journal, even paper products will need to be removed before proceeding through security.
Secretary Kelly also paid a visit to Meet the Press this morning. He was asked about the security implications of White House adviser Jared Kushner reportedly trying to set up back-channel communications with the Russian government while he was still a private citizen. Kelly said that he doesn't "see any big issue."