The EU has protested strongly against a proposed extension of a US ban on laptops on transatlantic flights from some of Europe’s biggest airports, warning that it could pose a risk to flight safety.
EU officials have also called on Washington to be more open in sharing security information that would justify enlarging the scope of the ban that the US authorities imposed earlier on flights to US cities from certain airports in the Middle East.
In a conference call with John Kelly, US secretary for homeland security, the EU’s transport and migration commissioners warned of the “potential safety implications of putting a large number of electronic devices in the aircraft hold” if they were not allowed in the cabin.
European regulators are concerned that placing hundreds of lithium-ion batteries in an enclosed space such as an aircraft hold could pose a serious fire risk.
Under UN rules, passengers are not allowed spare lithium-ion batteries in the hold after flight safety experts found that when packed tightly together, they can self-ignite and burn. Overheated batteries can also give off fumes and explode on board.
The European Aviation Safety Agency advises airlines that large electronic items such as laptops “should preferably be carried in the passenger cabin, on the person or in the carry-on baggage” in order to mitigate the risk of fire.
One European aviation official said that moving a laptop into the hold would make “no difference” if a bomb were hidden inside it, adding “cabin luggage is scanned more rigorously than hold luggage — some hold bags are not scanned at all”.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, European commissioner for migration and justice, told Mr Kelly “that the threat affects the EU and the US in the same way, so information should be shared and that the responses should be common”.
Mr Avramopoulos’s comments reflect deep disquiet in Brussels over a lack of information from Washington. In the absence of formal notification from the Trump administration, European officials have been relying only on press reports and are not being briefed on the scope or timing of the initiative.
EU officials were particularly keen to understand why the US was insisting on an extension of the ban when European agencies see no imminent threat at hand.
A commission spokesman said the talks were “constructive” and added: “No ban on electronic devices or any other decision has been announced.”
European airlines that operate flights to the US have already begun discreetly preparing for ban, however, according to one European aviation official. The ban would, in theory, also apply to US airlines that fly to many US cities from European airports, whereas they do not operate direct flights from the Middle East.
In March, the Trump administration imposed a ban on electronic devices larger than a mobile phone on all flights from 10 Middle Eastern hub airports, amid fears that a bomb could be hidden in a laptop and detonated on board. The UK followed suit, but left off some of the airports on the US list while adding others.
On Thursday, the commission wrote to senior US transport officials demanding an explanation for the proposed extension of the ban and clarification of what they are proposing.
In a letter to the US departments of homeland security and transportation, Brussels insisted that “information concerning the threat to civil aviation that concerns EU airports be made accessible in order to develop a shared assessment of risks and a common response which is robust, proportionate and in the interests of our common security”.
The talks also come as EU-US relations on the issue of transatlantic travel are strained by Washington’s refusal to include five EU countries in its visa waiver scheme. MEPs have called on the commission to scrap the visa waiver enjoyed by US citizens in the EU in retaliation.