Millions told to check in computers and tablets
Passengers flying to Britain from the Middle East and north Africa will be banned from carrying laptops and tablets amid fears that terrorists linked to al-Qaeda are plotting to put a bomb on an airliner.
The government announced that travellers from six countries, including Turkey and Egypt, would be barred from taking any electronic device bigger than a mobile phone into the cabin of UK-bound flights within days.
The indefinite ban — similar to one imposed by the United States on Monday night — will affect 230 flights over the next week and at least 12,000 over a year, hitting up to 2.4 million people. Fourteen airlines are covered, including British Airways, Easyjet, Monarch, Thomson Airways, Jet2 and Turkish Airlines.
Security sources said that the alert was linked to the development of laptop bombs by al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based Islamist group allied to al-Qaeda, which are designed to bypass airport security checks. The group claimed responsibility for a device concealed in a laptop on an aircraft taking off from Mogadishu in February 2016. It exploded while the jet was at low altitude, punching a hole in the side through which the suspected bomber was sucked out. The airliner landed safely.
Last night Islamic State was named as another laptop bomb threat. ABC News reported that the American ban was prompted by intelligence suggesting that associates of the group were working on smuggling rigged electronics onto US-bound flights.
Al-Qaeda’s arm in Yemen is also known to be developing concealed bombs targeting international air travel. Ibrahim al-Asiri, its chief bombmaker, is linked to past failed plots and has passed his skills to other recruits.
Whitehall sources said that the ban followed heightened awareness of the threat to aviation and of al-Qaeda’s desire to bring down an aircraft, rather than specific intelligence of a plot. There were concerns about the “culture of bringing so many electronic devices into the cabin”, a source added.
The ban, announced yesterday by the Department for Transport, will affect inbound flights to Britain from all airports in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Six UK airlines and eight Turkish or Middle Eastern-based carriers are affected.
It differs from the US ban, which covers ten airports in eight countries. These include Dubai International and Abu Dhabi International, which are not covered by the British restrictions, risking confusion for passengers. Sources said that the difference was down to a separate assessment of intelligence.
Other European countries have yet to act, though the government said that it had been in discussion with its counterparts on the Continent, suggesting that restrictions could be imminent.
Under the UK rules, electronic devices 16cm long, 9.3cm wide and 1.5cm deep are barred from the cabin and must be checked into the hold. It is expected to cover DVD players, laptops, iPad-style tablet computers, e-readers including Kindles, and handheld games consoles such as the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo DS.
It is believed to be the first significant change to airline security rules in the UK since restrictions covering liquids and gels were imposed for the first time in 2006 after a plot to bomb transatlantic flights.
Sally Leivesley, a security consultant, said that a bomb inside a printer had been intercepted in Britain but that it had almost slipped through the net.
“On board were devices in printers that were so well disguised that even the bomb experts couldn’t initially find them because the printer ink had been replaced with explosive powder and a telephone circuit had been put next to the printer ink inside the printer, which would effectively then be the timing device to set it off, but it looked like a normal printer,” she told the BBC’s Today programme.
“They’ve miniaturised this now into what looks like a normal laptop, and even the larger smartphones are an issue.”
The security change is likely to increase travelling costs; many airlines charge more than £30 per back to check luggage into holds.
Consumer groups warned that the change also risked leaving passengers exposed by rules barring them from compensation for valuables lost or damaged by airlines.
Most carriers tell travellers not to pack computers in the hold, with small print on airline contracts often saying that they refuse to accept responsibility for damage to property in checked-in bags. Most insurance will not cover items damaged in the hold.
Jeffrey Price, an aviation security expert at Metropolitan State University, Denver, said that the ban could lead to an increase in thefts from bags. It would also create further complications for airlines because many ban the carrying of certain lithium-ion batteries — found in laptops — in checked luggage.
“There would be a huge disadvantage to having everyone put their electronics in checked baggage,” he said.
John Grant, a senior analyst at the flight data analysts OAG, said: “This will have a big impact, particularly on business passengers who won’t be able to work on planes or in the lounge. It could cause real problems.”
Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, said that Britain faced a “constantly evolving threat from terrorism and must respond accordingly”. It is understood that MI5 has been part of an advisory group helping to inform the government on taking the step of further tightening restrictions on air travel.
The ban will affect 32 flights today, of which 16 are from Turkey. Over the course of the next week 230 will be affected by the ban, rising to almost 12,000 in a year. This suggests that up to 2.4 million passengers could be affected over 12 months, although numbers could be higher as flights peak in the summer months, particularly to Turkish resorts.