Travellers flying from Australia to the USA will undergo more rigorous security checks of technology including laptops and tablets before boarding their flights in the wake of new measures introduced by the US Department of Homeland Security overnight.
It represents one of the most sweeping security upgrades in the past decade, but stops short of a threatened ban on all electronic devices larger than a smartphone from aircraft cabins – a move flagged by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in mid-May.
The tougher standards will apply not only to direct flights to the US by foreign airlines such as Qantas and Virgin Australia but also US carriers United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines.
Although there is no immediate change for travellers on flights from Australia to the USA, it's understood that Australian passengers flying to the US can expect increased screening of personal electronic devices in the coming weeks.
Overall, the measures – which encompass all commercial flights to the United States – will impact an average of 325,000 passengers a day from 280 airports in 105 countries, according to the DHS.
Travellers can expect enhanced screening of electronic devices, more thorough vetting of passengers, increased use of bomb-sniffing dogs and measures to mitigate the potential threat posed by insider attacks.
The goal of the latest action was to react to intelligence showing terrorist groups have become more sophisticated in their bomb-making efforts and could hide explosives in a laptop or other electronic devices.
In a statement supplied to Australian Business Traveller this afternoon, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Darren Chester said "Our government is working with US authorities to determine whether there is any impact on travellers from Australia."
"Australia’s overall terrorism threat level has not changed and at this stage, the Government does not intend to alter aviation security arrangements for inbound flights or domestic travel."
Comply, or face a laptop ban
Almost all airports, particularly those in developed nations that already have sophisticated security measures, should be able to meet the new requirements, according to the agency.
If a nation or an airline declines to impose the security actions or can’t, passengers could be forced to give up any inflight electronics larger than a mobile phone – in both carry-on bags and checked luggage – or flights could be banned altogether, with the Federal Aviation Administration pulling an airline’s certificate.
“Make no mistake: our enemies are constantly working to find new methods for disguising explosives, recruiting insiders and hijacking aircraft,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in Washington. "We are not standing on the sidelines as fanatics hatch new plots.”
“It is time that we raise the global baseline of aviation security. We cannot play international whack-a-mole with each new threat.”
The announcement followed months of discussions over extending a ban on laptops with airlines and other nations. The European Commission and many airlines had pushed back against US threats to extend the ban.
Pre-clearance outposts an option
Another measure to enhance security at airports outside the US is to encourage nations to install so-called ‘pre-screening centers’ in conjunction with the US Customs and Border Protection agency.
At over a dozen airports around the world such as Montreal, Abu Dhabi and Ireland’s Shannon, US-bound travelers are subject to heightened screening and customs and immigration checks before they board their flight.
Sweden is in the midst of joining, but other countries have balked because of the shared costs for CBP facilities and staffing.
No precise deadline
DHS didn’t release a precise deadline. Airlines will be asked to impose new security in phases, with short- and long-term goals, the agency official said. They are likely to be imposed in the coming months.
At least part of the enhanced security may involve use of newer screening technology, according to the official.
American Airlines earlier this month began the first US test of scanners that produce three-dimensional pictures of bags, providing a more detailed view that can detect explosives better than the X-ray machines currently used.
The technology uses ‘computed tomography’ borrowed from the medical field, which captures hundreds of X-ray images of an object.
The Transportation Security Administration is also conducting a separate test of a similar device at another airport.
Laptop bans may be relaxed
The measures build on a ban of electronic devices larger than mobile phones that was imposed in March for US-bound flights originating from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa.
In that ban, devices could be stored in checked bags, which are more thoroughly screened for explosives.
The announcement offers the first hope that airports caught in the March ban can resume normal operations.
If global hubs such as Dubai impose the new security regime, passengers flying to the US can once again bring their laptops aboard planes, according to a Homeland Security official who declined to be named discussing details.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg News