Feds Won’t Ban Laptops, Will Make Airport Security Awful – WIRED

Let’s start with the good news for international travelers and the airlines that serve them: The Department of Homeland Security has decided not to extend its laptop ban, which prohibits any electronics larger than a phone in the cabin on flights from some Middle Eastern and African countries entering the US.

Bad news is, the feds are compensating by demanding new airport security measures that will make getting through to the gate more of a slog than ever. OK, back to good news: When it comes to making flying safer, these measures stand a much better chance than stuffing your MacBook in the cargo hold.

On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security announced more rigorous measures for all commercial flights landing in the US. “The United States and the global aviation community face an adaptive and agile enemy,” it said in a statement. “Terrorist groups continue to target passenger aircraft, and we have seen a ‘spider web’ of threats to commercial aviation as terrorist pursue new attack methods.”

To fight back, DHS says it wants to raise the baseline standard for aviation security around the world. Its jurisdiction extends to all commercial aircraft headed into and out of the US, enough to impact 180 airlines operating 2,100 daily flights from over 100 countries. The 325,000 daily passengers on those flights are being warned to expect enhanced screening, and other measures “both seen and unseen.”

The DHS isn’t giving much more detail—not wanting to show its hand and all—but the measures will likely include more pat downs and closer looks at electronics such as tablets, e-readers, and phones, including placing them in separate trays for the x-ray machine and turning them on to prove their batteries haven’t been replaced with bombs. Airports will be required to do more swab tests for explosives and patrols with bomb-sniffing dogs.

DHS officials say airlines flying to America from the eight countries currently subject to the laptop ban could see that measure lifted if they play by these new rules. Conversely, it could impose a ban on electronics anywhere on the plane for airlines that don’t or can’t comply.

“This is a better risk-based approach, without the draconian measure of taking away the most important business tool that people have today,” says Jeffrey Price, an aviation management and security expert at Metropolitan State University of Denver, who wrote Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats.

The laptop ban was initially prompted by fears that terrorists could disguise explosives as batteries, and smuggle them on board. Affected airlines saw passenger numbers to the US drop, and European officials lobbied the US hard last month, to ensure a similar ban wasn’t imposed on flights from their airports.

Although more pat downs and other tactics can mitigate threats, better technology is the best way to ensure safety with minimal disruption. The x-ray machines that peer into your hand luggage may all look the same, but what really matters is how their results are interpreted. While many countries use the same scanning hardware, the algorithms that interpret their data can vary. The most advanced machines use computers to take an initial pass at images, and highlight suspect objects for human operators.

Better yet are the medical grade CT scanners already examining checked bags. They’re sophisticated enough to automatically detect suspect substances at high speed, and flag those bags for a human to review. The TSA is experimenting with using the tech to check hand baggage too, in a trial just getting underway at Phoenix airport in Arizona. A CT scanner in one checkpoint lane provides operators with a 3-D image which they can spin around for a better look at dodgy objects. But the scanners are expensive, heavy, and power hungry, so squeezing them into existing airport security checkpoints is a challenge, and it will be a while before they can be used everywhere.

In the meantime, the new DHS measures should achieve its goal of improving airport security globally, especially if affected airlines opt for the simplicity of applying the standards to all their passengers, even the ones not flying to or from the US. So if you’re traveling this summer, the advice remains the same: Allow plenty of time to get through the airport, and then allow a little more.

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