US plans to ban laptops in cabins on all flights from European Union
The US is expected to broaden its ban on in-flight laptops and tablets to include planes from the European Union, a move that would create logistical chaos on the world's busiest corridor of air travel.
Alarmed at the proposal, which airline officials say is merely a matter of timing, European governments held urgent talks with the US Department of Homeland Security on Friday.
The ban would affect trans-Atlantic routes that carry as many as 65 million people a year on over 400 daily flights, many of them business travellers who rely on their electronics to work during the flight.
The ban would dwarf in size the current one, which was put in place in March and affects about 50 flights per day from 10 cities, mostly in the Middle East.
Chief among the concerns are whether any new threat prompted the proposal and the relative safety of keeping in the cargo area a large number of electronics with lithium batteries, which have been known to catch fire.
American officials were invited to Brussels next week to discuss the proposed ban, the EU said.
European Commission spokeswoman Anna-Kaisa Itkonen said the EU had no new information about a specific security concern.
US officials have said the decision in March to bar laptops and tablets from the cabins of some international flights was not based on any specific threat but on long-standing concerns about extremists targeting jetliners.
A French official who was briefed about Friday's meeting said the Americans announced they wanted to extend the ban, and the Europeans planned to formulate a response in coming days.
The official said the primary questions revolved around when and how - and not whether - the ban would be imposed.
Jenny Burke, a Homeland Security spokeswoman, said no final decision has been made on expanding the restriction.
However, Homeland Security officials met with high-ranking executives of the three leading US airlines - American, Delta and United - and the industry's leading US trade group Airlines for America on Thursday to discuss expanding the laptop policy to flights arriving from Europe.
Two airline officials who were briefed on the discussions said Homeland Security gave no timetable for an announcement, but they were resigned to its inevitability.
The US airlines still hope to have a say in how the policy is put into effect at airports to minimise inconvenience to passengers.
The initial ban on passengers bringing large electronics devices into the cabin hit hardest at Middle Eastern airlines.
Emirates, the Middle East's largest airline, cited the ban on electronics as one of the reasons for an 80% drop in profits last year.
It said the ban had a direct impact on demand for air travel into the US and it faced rising costs from introducing complimentary laptop loans to some passengers.
Alain Bauer, president of CNAPS, a French regulator of private-sector security agents, including those checking baggage and passengers in France's airports, predicted "chaotic" scenes initially if the ban was instituted.
"Imagine the number of people who carry their laptops and tablets onto planes - not just adults, but also children," he told the AP.
He said it would slow passage through security checks as people try to negotiate a way of keeping their laptops.
"It's not like losing your water bottle or your scissors. It will take more time to negotiate," he said.
"You need a lot of time to inform them and a lot of time for it to enter people's heads until it becomes a habit," he said.
"After a week of quite big difficulties, 95% of people will understand the practicalities."
The head of the International Air Transport Association said recently that the electronics ban is not an acceptable or effective long-term solution to security threats, and said the commercial impact is severe.
An industry-backed group, the Airline Passenger Experience Association, said the US government should consider alternatives.
That could include routinely testing laptops for chemical residues associated with bombs, requiring owners to turn on their devices, and letting frequent travellers keep their electronics with them.
The group's chief executive Joe Leader noted that airlines have reduced service by more than one million long-haul seats in the 10 Middle Eastern and North African cities affected by the March policy.
If it spreads to Europe, "it's simply a matter of time" before laptops are banned in the cabins of domestic US flights, he said.