The European Union seemed to stave off any immediate U.S. decision Friday on extending a ban on personal electronics in airline cabins — at least until the two sides meet next week in Brussels.
A face-to-face meeting of senior figures from both sides of the Atlantic was arranged during a conference call Friday among U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and the European home affairs and transport commissioners, Dimitris Avramopoulos and Violeta Bulc. It began just after 8:30 a.m. EDT, with ministers also patched in from Germany, Italy, France, Spain, the U.K. and Ireland.
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The meeting will take place on Wednesday.
Friday’s conversation followed a letter from the European Commission earlier this week urging consultation following reports that Washington was preparing to expand the ban on large personal electronics, including laptops and tablets, in the cabins of U.S.-bound planes. Such a ban is already in place for direct flights to the U.S. from some airports in the Middle East and North Africa, and DHS has said it is considering extending it to flights from other areas, including Europe.
DHS spokesman David Lapan said no decision is expected Friday on the possible expansion, which has caused consternation among some aviation officials and travel industry groups on both sides of the Atlantic. European officials are also concerned that communication from the U.S. has been almost non-existent, and that nobody knows for sure which countries or airports might be affected.
U.S. officials have called the initial electronics ban for Middle Eastern flights a necessary response to terrorists’ determination to attack aviation targets. Intelligence reports have said some terrorist groups are interested in hiding explosives inside consumer products.
But some U.S. travel industry groups said they’re just as puzzled as the European officials are about the DHS strategy.
“Everyone supports greater security in the face of the complex, persistent threat of terrorism,” said a statement from Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. “But this ban disrupts business travelers’ ability to travel and remain productive — adding it to the list of disastrous, cumbersome airline security policies we’ve seen over the years, from restrictions on liquids to removing shoes at security checkpoints.”
Koch also asked, “How do these bans increase security when they are easily circumvented, even if all of Europe is subject to them?”
Eben Peck of the American Society of Travel Agents suggested that DHS consider exempting passengers enrolled in trusted-traveler programs such as Global Entry from any electronics ban.
“If we have faith in the efficacy of these programs — and we must — then exempting these pre-screened, low-risk travelers from the ban would seem to be a sensible way to both minimize disruption to a portion of the traveling public while incentivizing enrollment,” Peck said.
The airline industry took a measured tone after meeting Thursday with Kelly, who separately briefed U.S. senators the same day on security threats.
“We continue to believe that security and efficiency are not mutually exclusive goals and stand ready to collaborate with DHS and TSA officials to both counter extant risks and to help minimize the impact on the traveling public,” the industry group Airlines for America said in a statement Friday.
DHS offered no word on how Friday’s phone call with the Europeans went, but a readout provided by the European Commission made clear that EU officials worked to head off the possibility of unilateral action by the U.S. authorities, in part by stressing the need for joint, coordinated action. Wednesday’s meeting in Brussels will focus on potential risks and review plans for boosting security.
“Commissioner Avramopoulos underlined that the threat affects the EU and the U.S. in the same way, that information should be shared, and that the responses should be common,” the readout said.
Bulc stressed concerns over the potential safety risk of storing large numbers of personal computers in the baggage holds of civilian aircraft. Lithium batteries that power many laptops pose a small risk of explosion.
Kathryn A. Wolfe, Brianna Gurciullo and Stephanie Beasley contributed to this report.