LONDON – A dramatic escalation of airport anti-terror checks on electronic gadgets was announced by United Kingdom ministers.
Tests on mobile phones, laptops and tablets that had been limited to passengers flying to the United States will now be massively expanded to cover destinations around the world.
This is understood to affect hundreds more flights to and from the Middle East and volatile parts of Africa and Asia, including popular summer holiday destinations such as Egypt. However, because neither airlines nor transport officials will confirm which routes are included, every single passenger must assume their gadgets will be checked, and act accordingly.
Travellers will have to prove their electronic devices – some with a notoriously short battery life –are working normally, following fears that terrorists could pack the battery compartments with explosives. The development, which comes at the start of the summer holiday season, is based on US intelligence amid fears of an attack by Islamist extremists.
Security officials are concerned thata booby-trapped electronic device could be smuggled onto a plane and used as a bomb by Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the Islamist Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
In 2009, Yemen-linked explosives expert Ibrahim al-Asiri was behind a similar plot and built an “underwear bomb”, used in a failed attempt to bring down a plane from Amsterdam bound for Detroit.
Passengers were first warned last week of extra checks on phones, and last Monday British Airways said it would ban travellers from boarding US-bound flights if their electronic devices were not charged.
It performed a partial U-turn, announcing that anyone whose devices had a flat battery could still fly – but they would have to leave their gadgets behind, and pay for them to be sent to their home address.
Official advice to travellers from the Department for Transport had previously been limited to those “flying to the US”. It now affects those “flying to and from the UK”, and states: “Make sure your electronic devices are charged before you travel. If your device doesn’t switch on, you won’t be allowed to bring it on to the aircraft.”
Gadgets packed in checked luggage will continue to be scanned as normal. Passengers whose devices are deemed to be suspicious could be prevented from leaving them in the hold – and could be barred from getting on flights altogether.
Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that “passengers may notice additional security measures on some routes both to and from the UK”.
A DfT spokesman added: “In line with the US advice, passengers on some routes into and out of the UK may now also be required to show that electronic devices in their hand luggage are powered up or face not being allowed to bring the device onto the aircraft.”
McLoughlin told the House of Commons that the new advice “is in line with that issued by the US, and we have updated our official advice to passengers accordingly”.
His written statement continued: “For obvious reasons we will not be commenting in detail on the measures or the routes affected. We will work with the aviation industry to minimise disruption as far as possible.” McLoughlin stressed there was no change to the terror threat level, which remains at “substantial”, but warned: “We face a constantly evolving threat from terrorism and must respond accordingly.”
The escalation in security checks came hours after British Airways (BA)ditched its own “no charge, no fly” rule, announcing that passengers whose devices had a flat battery could still board planes – but without their gadgets. The airline will now see checks extended far beyond the 35 daily flights from the UK to the US which were first affected.
A BA spokesman said: “We would advise that all customers flying on routes into and out of the UK, as well on flights from the UK to US cities, ensure that their electronic devices are powered up, as there may be extra searches and checks before boarding. Our flights continue to operate as normal.”
They added: “Safety and security is our top priority at all times and we continue to work closely with airports and governments around the world.”
BA also announced measures – similar to those of rivals Virgin Atlantic – to allow customers to have their devices returned at a later date.
As in Virgin’s case, the cost of a courier will be covered by the passenger.
BA said it was “liaising with UK airports with a view to finding a workable solution”.
– Daily Mail