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US allies go their own way on in-flight laptop ban ordered by White House
WATCH US may expand electronics ban on flights from Europe
A month and a half after the United States announced it would ban large electronics from the cabins of certain passenger flights originating in the Middle East, the uneven measures enacted by its closest allies in response have raised questions about the Trump administration’s decision to take such severe action.
While the United Kingdom quickly followed suit in prohibiting passengers from carrying laptops and other devices on flights from specific airports, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have not announced similar bans.
Canada and Australia said in the wake of the new U.S. and U.K. measures that they would enact some additional security measures, while New Zealand said it had not made any changes and did not plan to do so.
The varied reactions have prompted pushback in the airline industry.
“We don’t know why different countries have taken different approaches,” Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association. a trade group that represents 274 airlines across the world, told ABC News.
“But it certainly appears that, based on the approach that’s been taken by the security regulators in Australia and Canada, that there are genuine alternatives to what’s generally been described as ‘the laptop ban’ or ‘the electronics ban.’”
The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are part of an intelligence alliance called the “Five Eyes,” in which the nations share intelligence information extensively.
Canada’s minister of transport, Marc Garneau, spoke twice on the telephone with U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly about the U.S. actions — the night before the U.S. restrictions were announced and the next morning — and dispatched a team of officials to Brussels in late-March to engage in “information sharing” during “a meeting of allies,” a spokesman for the minister, Marc Roy, told ABC News.
Meetings occurred at lower official levels, too, Roy said.
As a result, Canada instituted “additional security measures” on inbound flights, Roy said without providing details, citing security reasons. He would not identify the airports affected by the new measures, which did not include banning electronics or other materials from cabins, because there was “no direct impact to the passenger, contrary to the U.S. measures that have a direct impact on the passenger,” he said.
In Australia, the federal minister for infrastructure and transport announced in late-March that, while Australia was not banning electronic devices from being carried into cabins, “airlines flying directly to Australia from three major transit airports in the Middle East will begin additional screening measures at the boarding gates.”
The minister, Darren Chester, said the changes — which would include explosive detection screening for randomly selected passengers and their baggage and possibly “targeted screening of electronic devices” — were in line with increased British security for passengers coming from Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai.
The department said at the time that the decision followed “similar measures being introduced by the U.S. and U.K.” A spokeswoman for the minister, Kerri Griffiths, told ABC News that information from international partners, including the United States and United Kingdom, did inform Australia’s moves.
When asked why Australia did not institute a prohibition on electronics in cabins, Griffiths said, “Each country considers all information, threats and risks specific to their country and makes judgements about what is required for their context.”
New Zealand has not made any changes nor did it plan to do so, according to the country’s Civil Aviation Authority. “There is no specific threat to New Zealand and no specific timeframe for any changes to our current security regime,” a spokesman for the entity, Mike Richards, told ABC News.
New Zealand’s transport minister, Simon Bridges, told Reuters April 23 that the Civil Aviation Authority was “assessing the evidence to determine what is appropriate,” but Richards said those comments “refer to routine activity at last ports of departure to New Zealand.”
While officials in these countries all likely saw the same intelligence, they may have come to different conclusions about whether current screening abilities were sufficient to detect the threats, according to John Cohen, the former counterterrorism coordinator at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who coordinated the agency’s response when intelligence about terror groups’ trying to hide bombs in laptops and other electronic devices first emerged.
It is possible those countries had previously seen the information, while those in the Trump administration had not, and had made divergent assessments about its credibility or their capabilities to address it, or may had, in fact, already addressed it themselves, according to Cohen, who is an ABC News contributor and a former acting undersecretary and principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security.
“Making the decision to ban iPads and laptops from a flight is a very severe security measure in that it has the potential to cause a pretty significant disruption to the traveling public,” Cohen said, “in particular those traveling on business.”
Whenever measures as severe as banning laptops are taken, he said, the impact on the traveling public, and whether it is worth it, is almost certainly taken into account.
Soon after the United States and United Kingdom announced their restrictions on large electronics, the director general and CEO of the IATA, the airline trade association, said the moves were “not an acceptable long-term solution to whatever threat they are trying to mitigate” and that “the commercial distortions they create are severe.”