The U.S. on Tuesday opted not to ban laptops from the cabins of planes flying to the U.S. from Europe, European sources told POLITICO, despite worries about terrorists plotting to hide explosives inside electronic devices.
“No ban,” a European Commission official said. “Both sides have agreed to intensify technical talks and try to find a common solution.”
But that decision could change based on future intelligence, another source said.
DHS would not comment on the contents of its conversation with European officials. But a source with knowledge of the conversation said the U.S. side took into account European concerns about the safety implications of storing devices with lithium batteries in aircraft cargo holds.
The decision was made during a conference call Tuesday afternoon between U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and European Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc, sources said. It came just two days after Kelly said on “Fox News Sunday” that his department was considering imposing the ban on all U.S.-bound international flights.
In the weekend interview, Kelly said he was still considering how to handle what he called "a real sophisticated threat." He added, “We are going to raise the bar — generally speaking — for aviation security."
Tuesday’s news comes two months after DHS imposed the ban for direct flights from 10 Middle Eastern and North African airports. On those flights, laptops, tablets, e-readers and other electronic devices larger than a cell phone must be checked into the planes’ cargo holds, where safety experts say their lithium batteries pose a potential fire risk.
U.S. authorities have said the Middle East laptop ban was based on intelligence about terrorists’ growing skill in hiding explosives inside consumer electronics — the same topic that prompted President Donald Trump’s controversial discussion of allegedly classified information with Russian officials early this month.
Speculation about expanding the ban has swelled in recent weeks as DHS officials held multiple briefings with U.S. lawmakers, airline industry representatives and EU officials.
In the U.S., both Democratic and Republican lawmakers said they believed that the aviation threats discussed in classified briefings were credible. But industry officials in Europe have complained that the logistics of enforcing the ban could snarl hundreds of flights each day and cause hours-long flight delays. EU officials have also said the U.S. seemed unmoved by their opinions on the matter.
Travel groups said the disruption of banning laptops from so many flights would be especially disruptive to business travelers, who tend to work while aloft and whose employers often require devices to be kept on their person to guard against thefts of corporate information. Some in the industry hoped that the expanded ban would be a temporary measure.
“We continue to stress that any and all security policies should constantly be reassessed and evolve as appropriate, and that measures should be pursued that effectively cope with valid threats while minimizing disruption of legitimate travel,” U.S. Travel Association Executive Vice President Jonathan Grella said in a recent statement.
Some security experts also raised concerns that a unilateral, U.S.-imposed ban would worsen relations between the United States and Europe, already strained by Trump’s criticisms of Germany, his refusal to join the G7’s statement supporting the Paris climate agreement, and U.S. leaks about last week’s terrorist bombing in Manchester, England.
“Intelligence information sharing is more important now than it has ever been,” said Colin Clarke, a political scientist at the RAND Corp. “The fact that that [the electronics ban] is driving a wedge between countries is concerning.”
DHS spokesman David Lapan has said previously that while DHS agreed to meet with Europeans to help them understand the terrorist threat that the U.S. was attempting to address, Kelly alone would ultimately make the final decision.
Stephanie Beasley contributed reporting from Washington.