U.S. airline passengers will have to take tablet computers and other large electronic devices out of carry-on bags for inspection as the government phases in tighter screening prompted by fears terror groups can hide bombs in them.
Most passengers already had to remove laptops from their bags when going through security, and now will need to remove e-readers, tablet computers and other devices so they can be X-rayed separately, the Transportation Security Administration announced Wednesday.
TSA said the new measures will be imposed in the “weeks and months ahead.”
“It is critical for TSA to constantly enhance and adjust security screening procedures to stay ahead of evolving threats and keep passengers safe,” TSA Acting Administrator Huban A. Gowadia said in an emailed statement.
“By separating personal electronic items such as laptops, tablets, e-readers and handheld game consoles for screening, TSA officers can more closely focus on resolving alarms and stopping terror threats.”
The move, which comes at the peak summer travel season, is part of a sweeping overhaul of how airport security agencies screen electronics following intelligence that terror groups have refined their ability to sneak bombs in laptops and other devices.
It follows an announcement from the Department of Homeland Security that imposed similar requirements on almost 280 airports in more than 100 countries outside of the U.S.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly had threatened for months to impose a ban on large electronic devices in airline cabins for all flights headed to the U.S. after imposing such restrictions in March on flights leaving from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa.
The agency stopped short of a ban in a June order, requiring additional screening of electronics instead, and allowing passengers at the 10 airports to resume carrying on their devices.
Wednesday’s order won’t apply to passengers enrolled in TSA’s PreCheck program, which gives people expedited screening after they agree to a background check. Travelers in PreCheck lines will still be allowed to keep electronic devices and liquids in their bags. TSA said this month it had added PreCheck lanes to the 200th U.S. airport.
More bag checks on the way
The TSA warned in its statement Wednesday that "passengers may experience more bag checks."
“Just watch. You can’t just take more things out of bags and not back up a line,” said Jeffrey Price, a professor an aviation professor specializing in security at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Airport lines surged in 2016, prompting thousands of travelers to miss flights, as TSA staffing levels fell and screeners became overwhelmed by rising numbers of travelers.
"The system is performing at just about max capacity," Price said. "We start putting more delay in the system and we could see the lines back up quite a bit."
TSA tested the procedures at 10 U.S. airports this year and has worked on ways to streamline the process with "quicker and more targeted measures to clear the bags," it said in the release.
A TSA officer will be stationed at screening lines to help passengers with the new requirements and will recommend how to efficiently arrange items in bins for X-ray screening.
Airlines for America, a trade group representing large carriers, said in an emailed statement it “remains committed to working collaboratively with DHS officials to strike the appropriate balance of maintaining the efficiency of the system, while ensuring the highest levels of security are in place.” It urged travelers to enroll in the PreCheck program to speed screening.
American Airlines isn’t concerned that the enhanced screenings will slow movement through airport security lines because the procedures were tested in TSA lanes at its hubs in Los Angeles and Phoenix, said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier.
American is working with Analogic to expand the use of a new X-ray scanner borrowed from the medical industry to create a higher-definition, three-dimensional image that is better able to detect explosives. The new technology eventually may allow laptops and liquids to remain inside carry-on bags, Feinstein said.
Several manufacturers, such as Integrated Defense & Security Solutions, have built similar devices and are undergoing testing by TSA to certify them for use. They use computed tomography or CT scanning technology to produce hundreds of images of a bag. CT scanners have been in use for checked bags since shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
While TSA has said it is optimistic about the technology, Congress hasn’t appropriated any money for widespread purchase of the new devices.
Price said the announcement is a sign that the government hasn’t kept up with the current threats against aviation and needs to adopt newer technology.
"The whole point of an X-ray machine is so we don’t have to take stuff out of a bag and it can be inspected more quickly," he said.