The United States may soon extend its ban on computers in the cabin on some flights from the Middle East and Africa to more airports, the head of Homeland Security confirmed Wednesday.
Secretary John Kelly told a Senate committee that the Department of Homeland Security may "take measures in the not too distant future to expand the number of airports" affected by restrictions on laptops and tablet computers over concerns that terrorists may target commercial aviation by concealing explosives in larger electronics.
Kelly's comments during Wednesday's hearing on Capitol Hill followed similar remarks by DHS spokesman David Lapan, who a day earlier told USA Today, “I’m not saying anything is imminent, but I’m not ruling anything out."
Travelers on direct flights to the United States from 10 airports in eight Middle Eastern and North African countries are required to pack any electronics larger than a mobile phone into their checked luggage.
The United States announced the indefinite in-cabin electronics ban March 21 in the wake of an executive order that affected travelers from the same regions. Taken together, the two measures immediately drew criticism that the Trump administration was discriminating against the majority-Muslim nations.
‘Real threat all the time’
Kelly dismissed the criticism at the hearing, saying he did not make the new protocol "because of the Muslim religion or the color of their skin."
"We know that on any given day there are dozens of [terror] cells that are talking about attacking aviation ... there's a real threat all the time."
"It's real. It's getting realer, so to speak," he said. The secretary did not elaborate on the nature of the threats or why the airports were chosen.
Great Britain implemented a similar ban the day after the U.S., affecting direct flights from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia.
Australia announced last Friday it would increase baggage screening on flights from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, and Doha, Qatar, but would not ban electronics in the cabin.
Security officials have raised concerns about potential new methods of concealing explosives inside electronics that may evade detection during airport screenings, CNN reported last week.
The affected airports include: Queen Alia International Airport (Jordan), Cairo International Airport (Egypt), Ataturk International Airport (Turkey), King AbdulAziz International Airport (Saudi Arabia), King Khalid International Airport (Saudi Arabic), Kuwait International Airport (Kuwait), Mohammed V Airport (Morocco), Hamad International Airport (Qatar), Dubai International Airport (UAE), and Abu Dhabi International Airport (UAE).
The list of countries affected by the electronics restrictions does not overlap with the countries affected by an executive order issued in March barring travelers from six Middle Eastern and African countries. That order has since been suspended due to pending lawsuits around the U.S. Moreover, those countries do not have direct flights to the U.S., and the electronics limits are currently limited to direct flights from the same regions.
Several airlines are trying to keep customers happy by working around the restrictions, providing laptops or tablet computers to some passengers and offering to check laptops into the cargo hold at the gate, to allow travelers to keep their devices until they board a flight.