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A new travel ban may mean laptops, tablets and other large electronics have to stay in checked luggage on non-stop flights to the U.S. from certain airports in the Middle East and Africa.
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government began notifying nine foreign airlines in the Middle East and Africa at 3 a.m. ET Tuesday that personal electronics larger than cellphones will be banned indefinitely in the cabins of about 50 direct flights daily to the U.S.

The secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, John Kelly, and the acting head of the Transportation Security Administration, Huban Gowadia, decided that greater security was needed based on intelligence about airlines that fly non-stop from 10 airports to the U.S., according to four senior administration officials who spoke to reporters on background to discuss security measures.

“Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorists continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items,” said a senior administration official.

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, fully supported the security precautions Tuesday after being briefed about them during the weekend.

“These steps are both necessary and proportional to the threat,” Schiff said. “The global aviation system remains a top target and proper security requires that we continually adapt our defenses.”

TODAY IN THE SKY: What fliers need to know about the airline laptop and electronics ban

No imminent threat was reported. But the targeted airlines will have 96 hours to ensure that passengers stow all of their tablets, e-readers, DVD players, cameras, game units, travel printers and scanners — any electronics larger than a cellphone — in checked luggage rather than in carry-on.

The officials wouldn’t disclose why it was safer to have the electronics in cargo than in the cabin.

If an airline ignores the restrictions, security officials will ask the Federal Aviation Administration to revoke the airline’s certificate to fly to the U.S.

Homeland Security and State Department officials began notifying officials in the affected countries about the looming restrictions on Sunday.

The nine airlines affected are: Royal Jordanian, EgyptAir, Turkish Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Moroc, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways.

“For those guests bound for the U.S., this must be done at the point of origin which may not necessarily be at Abu Dhabi International Airport,” Etihad said in a statement Tuesday, with rules going into effect March 25. “Safety and security remain the highest priority for Etihad Airways and we will continue to assist passengers in complying with this directive.”

Emirates said the restrictions will be in place through Oct. 14, although U.S. officials said the ban is indefinite.

“It is applicable to all U.S.-bound passengers from Dubai International Airport, whether originating or transiting through. Emirates requests that all passengers travelling to the U.S. pack all electronic devices larger than a cell phone/smart phone in their checked-in baggage,” the airline said in a statement Tuesday.

Emirates tweeted about the other entertainment available on the flights.

The ban raised some concerns. Naureen Shah, senior director of campaigns at Amnesty International USA, said the ban for flights from majority-Muslim countries “could be yet more bigotry disguised as policy.”

“This could be the latest in what looks set to be a long line of discriminatory measures deployed by the Trump administration against Muslims around the world,” Shah said. “Muslims are once again left in the dark as the U.S administration piles up bans and restrictions against them.”

Jonathan Grella, executive vice president for the U.S. Travel Association, said the travel community supports making flying more secure.

But the government should explain policy changes as measures are reassessed, to secure rather than suppress travel, he said.

“We urge the federal government to make every effort to minimize disruption to legitimate travelers by clearly and quickly articulating the details of the new policy to enforcement personnel and the flying public,” Grella said.

The 10 international airports where those airlines fly directly to the U.S. are: Queen Alia in Jordan, Cairo in Egypt, Ataturk in Turkey, King Abdulaziz and King Khalid in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Mohamed V in Morocco, Doha in Qatar, and Dubai and Abu Dhabi in United Arab Emirates.

Word of the ban began to spread Monday when Royal Jordanian and Saudi Arabian airlines each tweeted to their passengers that laptops and other electronics would no longer be allowed in the cabin on flights to the U.S.

“The effort was not focused specifically on any one location or country,” said a senior administration official. “It is really addressing the threat and how we perceive the threat, and what we’re doing is what we think is the right thing at the right place to address the threat and guarantee the safety of our traveling public.”

The ban doesn’t affect U.S. airlines because none fly directly from the airports or countries involved. The officials didn’t respond directly to a question about the possibility of a terrorist in one of the affected countries taking a connecting flight to the U.S.

“We continue to evaluate and put in place security measures both seen and unseen to address all aspects of this threat,” a senior administration official said.

The order was based on intelligence that officials wouldn’t disclose. But the Russian Metrojet destroyed over Egypt by a suspected bomb in October 2015, the explosion aboard a Daallo Airlines flight in Somalia in February 2016, and the bombings at airports in Brussels in March 2016 and Istanbul in June 2016 each contributed to the higher threat level. Security experts have said the Daallo bomb was hidden in a laptop.

“We’re concerned about ongoing interest in targeting commercial aviation, including transportation hubs,” said a senior administration official. “Just evaluating all the intelligence, we believe the threat is still prominent against airlines and airports. For that reason, we have made a determination that these measures were necessary.”

Andrew Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Akron and editor in chief of the Journal of Transportation Security, said Al Qaeda continues to target aviation, despite the attention focused on the Islamic State. Packing explosives into electronics is nothing new, after the bomb hidden in a cassette recorder in checked luggage destroyed Pan Am flight 103 in December 1988, he said.

“The idea of using electronic devices as ‘Trojan horses’ to deliver explosives onboard a flight is nothing new,” Thomas said. “A big question: would or could people travel without their mobile phone or other personal devices if given no other option?”