The Trump administration is considering extending a ban on laptops in aircraft cabins to all flights to the US from anywhere in the world, in a move that would create major disruption for passengers and airlines.
US homeland security officials who met European commissioners in Brussels this week said that if Washington does extend its ban on large electronic devices, Europe would not be singled out and restrictions would apply to all flights to the US.
Brussels was also assured that it would be given ample warning of any extension of the ban in order to alert member states and European airlines. EU and US officials will meet again in Washington next week to discuss the technical practicalities of extending the ban.
David Lapan, a spokesperson for homeland security, said that secretary John Kelly was considering a worldwide extension of the US ban, though no decision had yet been taken.
“We are considering extending the restriction that is in place in the Middle East and north Africa now, and the expansion of those restrictions could include Europe and other locations,” said Mr Lapan. “We’ve had ongoing discussions with our European colleagues but it is still something that Secretary Kelly is considering.”
The decision has reduced any anger in Brussels that Europe would be singled out by any ban and that the US was failing to fully communicate the details of its plans. “In the army, when you have a kettle and you are making porridge, you cannot make it thicker in one corner of the kettle,” said one senior EU diplomat. “It is the same with flight security. Why should [EU-US] flights be restricted and more secure than the ones to Thailand or Egypt?”
Under the proposed restrictions, passengers would be forbidden from carrying electronic items larger than a mobile phone into an aircraft cabin as hand luggage. The ban is already in force at nine Middle Eastern airlines which fly to the US.
The restrictions come in response to fears that Isis is developing a bomb that can be hidden within a laptop and detonated on board.
Airlines fear the impact of any laptop restrictions. The chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, the airline lobby group, has estimated that extending the ban to Europe alone would cost passengers $1bn through longer travel times and lost productivity.
The ban also threatens to hit demand for flights to the US, with many companies forbidding employees from stowing laptops in the hold because of the risk of sensitive information being stolen.
One European airline official said the impact of an extended ban would be huge. “It will definitely cause cancellations — especially in the first few weeks as people adapt to the new rules. It also might impact on travel patterns — people might not fly so much and instead opt for a video call,” the official said.
Emirates, the largest Gulf carrier, last week reported an 82 per cent fall in annual profits, which it blamed in part on the laptop ban and a resulting reduction in its flights to the US. In April, the airline announced it was cutting the number of US-bound flights because of weak demand following introduction of the measure.
A ban would also force airlines to amend rules that prohibit lithium ion batteries from being stowed in hold luggage. Brussels is concerned by the danger posed by overheating batteries left in the hold. Flight safety experts have found that when packed tightly together, laptop batteries can self-ignite and burn. Overheating batteries can also give off fumes and explode on board.
The meeting between US and EU officials on Wednesday came after Brussels wrote to the Trump administration to complain of a lack of information regarding the proposed extension of the ban.
European officials were frustrated after reports emerged that US president Donald Trump had shared sensitive information on the matter with Russian ambassador Sergey Lavrov. “It is somewhat surprising though that intel was shared on this issue with Russian minister Lavrov, before being shared with ministers of allied countries,” said one EU diplomat.