WASHINGTON — In a massive escalation of airline security worldwide, hundreds of thousands of travelers flying to the U.S. from overseas will face additional scrutiny for laptops and other electronics larger than cellphones, the Department of Homeland Security said Wednesday.
The tougher standards apply to 180 domestic and foreign airlines that fly direct to the U.S. from 280 airports from 105 countries. The new rules will affect about 2,000 daily flights carrying 325,000 passengers.
Intelligence about terrorists developing ways to hide bombs and infiltrate airport staffing prompted the tougher security measures, according to two senior DHS officials who spoke on background during a conference call for reporters on Wednesday.
In the case of recent airline bombings in Egypt and Somalia, investigators suspect airport workers smuggled explosives aboard planes.
“Make no mistake: our enemies are constantly working to find new methods for disguising explosives, recruiting insiders and hijacking aircraft,” John Kelly, secretary of Homeland Security, said in a speech Wednesday at the Center for a New American Security, a non-profit that develops security and defense policies.
“It is time that we raise the global baseline of aviation security," Kelly said. "We cannot play international whack-a-mole with each new threat.”
DHS expects 99% of airlines to be able to meet the new requirements and time frames, the officials said. They did not give specifics on either the requirements or the time frame.
If airlines don't or can't comply, the U.S. could ban electronics larger than cellphones on entire planes — in both carry-on bags and checked luggage, the officials said.
The Federal Aviation Administration could also block flights by pulling an airline’s certificate, the officials said.
The new measures will be seen and unseen at airports, Kelly said, and will focus on enhanced screening for electronics, more thorough passenger vetting and measures to reduce the threat of insider attacks.
“Terrorists want to bring down aircraft to instill fear, disrupt our economies and undermine our way of life – and it works, which is why they still see aviation as the crown jewel target in their world,” Kelly said. “The threat is not diminished. However, we are not standing on the sidelines while fanatics hatch new plots.”
Protocols will change for passenger areas around gates and on the tarmac around planes. Security methods could vary by airline and airport.
Travelers could see more bomb-sniffing dogs or upgraded technology such as CT-scanners at airports, like the test that American Airlines is running at the Phoenix airport with the Transportation Security Administration. The advanced technology can peer into the clutter of carry-on bags to detect possible explosives.
The tougher standards aren’t an expansion of the laptop ban enacted in March for carry-on bags of flights of nine airlines from 10 airports in eight countries, officials said.
Those airlines will be able to get out from under that ban — passengers will be allowed to bring laptops again — if they meet the new standards.
DHS officials are also encouraging more foreign airports to join Customs and Border Protection’s pre-clearance program, which screens in-bound travelers for Customs and Immigration before they board planes.
Pre-clearance facilities are located at 15 airports in Canada, Ireland, the Caribbean and Abu Dhabi. Sweden is in the midst of joining. But other countries have balked because of the shared costs for CBP facilities and staffing.