May 22, 2017

Executive Summary

On March 21, the United States and United Kingdom announced new measures prohibiting airline passengers from carrying large electronic devices, including laptop computers, in their carry-on luggage on flights from several Middle Eastern destinations to the US or UK. According to multiple credible, but unconfirmed, media reports, the new security measures were triggered by intelligence that an Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group has developed bombs that can be disguised as batteries for electronic devices.

Key Judgments:

  • The new measures will increase the possibility that such large electronic devices will be stolen or damaged during travel on flights affected by the new measures.
  • Companies that prohibit employees from placing company laptops or other devices in checked luggage will have to either modify their policies or mandate that travelers change their travel itineraries to avoid flights affected by the new security measures.
  • There is a moderate-to-high likelihood that other countries will implement similar security measures in the coming weeks.
  • The new security measures are likely to remain in effect until authorities can develop and implement new methods for checking large electronic devices for hidden bombs at existing airport security checkpoints.
  • There is a moderate likelihood that the US or UK will modify the list of countries affected by the new security measures in the coming weeks.

What devices are affected?

The measures will effectively prohibit passengers from carrying on any electronic device larger than a smartphone. The US has not specifically identified the maximum size for a smartphone, while the UK has stated that smartphones will only be allowed in carry-on luggage if they are smaller than 16 cm (6.3 inches) long, 9.3 cm (3.7 inches) wide, and 1.5 cm (0.6 inches) deep. For comparison's sake, an iPhone 7 Plus is 15.8 cm (6.23 inches) long. If travelers have questions about specific items, they should contact their airline before traveling.

What airports are affected?

The US security measures specifically apply to flights to the US departing from the following airports:

  • Queen Alia International Airport (AMM) in Amman, Jordan
  • Cairo International Airport (CAI) in Cairo, Egypt
  • Ataturk International Airport (IST) in Istanbul, Turkey
  • King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
  • King Khalid International Airport (RUH) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
  • Kuwait International Airport (KWI) in Kuwait City, Kuwait
  • Mohammed V Airport (CMN) in Casablanca, Morocco
  • Hamad International Airport (DOH) in Doha, Qatar
  • Dubai International Airport (DXB) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates
  • Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Outside of Israel, no other airports in the Middle East/North Africa region have direct flights to the US.

The UK security measures apply to all UK-bound flights departing from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Turkey. Unlike the US measures, the UK measures do not apply to Morocco, Qatar, or the UAE. Tunisia and Lebanon are included on the UK list but not the US list, as these countries have direct flights to the UK, but not the US.

What is the reason for the measures?

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has stated that the new security measures will be implemented because "evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items." The DHS has stated the measures were not a response to a specific terrorist plot.

Media reports have suggested that the new measures are related to intelligence that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has developed bombs that can be disguised as batteries for electronic devices. These media reports have not been officially confirmed. AQAP has been responsible for several previous bombmaking innovations, including placing a bomb in an attacker's underwear in a failed attempt to down a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in 2009, and placing two bombs in printer cartridges in 2010 in an attempt to attack two US-bound cargo planes.

After the new measures were initially announced, several media sources and commentators raised the possibility that the new US measures may have been motivated partly by political concerns instead of security concerns. The UK's adoption of the security measures and subsequent reports of the battery bomb intelligence have indicated that such allegations are likely unfounded. 

When will the new measures take effect?

The US formally notified airlines of the new measures early on Tuesday, March 21, and gave the airlines four days to comply. The UK did not provide a specific deadline in its public announcement for the new measures. Qatar Airways and EgyptAir said they would enforce the new measures starting March 24, while Turkish Airlines and Emirates have said they will do so starting March 25. Other airlines will likely begin enforcing the measures around the same dates. Travelers should contact airlines if they have any questions regarding whether the measures will be in effect for their flights.

How long will the new measures stay in effect?

The US DHS has stated that the procedures will "remain in place until the threat changes." The UK has not provided an end date for its increased security measures.

If the reports of AQAP developing battery bombs are true, the new security measures will likely remain in place until security officials can develop new screening methods to detect bombs disguised as batteries in large electronic devices, and implement those methods at existing security checkpoints. At that point, the prohibitions on carrying large electronic devices in carry-on luggage will likely be lifted and replaced with enhanced screening at airport security checkpoints.

The US or UK may remove individual countries or airports from their respective lists of affected airports and countries if they demonstrate that their security measures are capable of detecting the devices that AQAP has allegedly developed.

How will the new measures be enforced?

The US and UK will largely leave enforcement in the hands of the affected airlines. Neither the US nor UK conducts security screenings on foreign soil, although the US operates a customs preclearance facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).

Is transporting electronic devices in checked luggage safe?

Transporting electronic devices in checked luggage increases the likelihood that the devices will be lost or stolen during the trip. While loss or theft of luggage remains rare, companies whose travelers will be flying on the affected flights with company devices should consider taking additional data protection measures, including encryption or ensuring that no sensitive data is stored on devices sent in checked luggage.

The US and UK security measures will increase the number of lithium-ion batteries being transported in aircraft cargo holds. Lithium-ion batteries have caused numerous fires on commercial airliners; such fires in the passenger cabin are relatively easy to contain and extinguish, but extinguishing one in a cargo hold would be significantly more difficult. At least two cargo aircraft have crashed as a result of lithium-ion battery fires in their cargo holds, although both instances involved large shipments of lithium-ion batteries, not batteries in individual devices. 

Could the new measures be expanded to other airports or countries?

Neither the US nor UK authorities have stated that they intend to apply the new measures to flights from additional overseas destinations, but the possibility of such an expansion cannot be ruled out.

Are other countries going to implement similar measures?

As of midday March 22, no other countries have announced plans to implement similar measures. The French and Canadian governments have stated that they are studying the threat, and other US allies are likely doing the same. The Australian government has stated that it does not intend to implement similar measures.

Will the new measures apply to connecting passengers?

The new measures will likely apply to passengers who are transiting through one of the affected airports or countries to a flight to the US or UK. Emirates has indicated that it will apply the new measures to passengers connecting in Dubai to US-bound flights, regardless of their point of origin. Other airlines are likely to follow suit.

Emirates has also indicated that it will apply the new security measures to passengers who depart Dubai on US-bound flights that stop in a third country en route. Emirates operates a flight from Dubai to Newark, New Jersey, US that stops in Athens, Greece and a flight from Dubai to New York, New York, US that stops in Milan, Italy. Passengers who board these flights in Dubai will have to pack their large electronic devices in their checked luggage. It remains unclear if the new measures will apply to passengers who join those flights at their European stopovers. 

What can travelers do to avoid the new security measures?

The best way for travelers to avoid being affected by the new security measures is to avoid flights that connect in the countries or airports in question when traveling to the US or UK, or to make connections in a third country on trips from one of the affected countries or airports to the US or UK.

Travelers who are flying directly from one of the affected countries or airports to the US or UK will not be able to avoid the new security measures, as they apply to all travelers, including US and UK nationals and those enrolled in trusted traveler programs, such as TSA Precheck.

Is flying from the affected countries or airports unsafe?

There are no indications that travel from any of the affected countries or airports has become less safe. The US has not ordered its diplomats or other government personnel to avoid flights from the airports on the DHS list, and the UK government has stated that it is "not currently advising against flying to and from those countries."

Terrorists have attacked commercial aviation targets in two of the affected countries since the start of 2015. The Islamic State (IS) militant group claims that it used an improvised explosive device to down a Russian airliner over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in October 2015 after the aircraft took off from Sharm El Sheik, Egypt (SSH). Kurdish militants fired mortars into Istanbul's Sabiha Gokcen International Airport (SAW) in December 2015, and IS actors carried out a gun and suicide bomb attack against Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport (IST) in June 2016.

Most airports in the affected countries, however, have relatively good security screening standards. Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH), in particular, has a US Border Preclearance facility, meaning that passengers on US-bound flights can deplane directly into secure areas of terminals after landing in the US, and can connect to US domestic flights without any additional screening. Such measures require security screening standards in Abu Dhabi to be at least as good as those in the US.