UK transport secretary outlines thinking behind electronics ban

UK secretary of state for transport Chris Grayling today batted away questions in Parliament over why devices affected by the new electronics restrictions were considered safer in the hold than in the cabin.

Grayling also told members of the UK Parliament that the new rules are “hopefully” temporary, and it is “very much the responsibility of airlines” to explain the restrictions to their passengers.

The UK announced yesterday that large mobile phones, laptops and tablets would no longer be allowed in the cabin on flights to the UK from airports in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, due to “an evolving security threat to aircraft”.

The move followed similar action in the US a day earlier when the US Department of Homeland Security announced an indefinite ban on carrying laptop and tablet computers on flights operated by nine airlines from 10 airports.

Grayling was asked directly by another Member of Parliament earlier today why these devices were considered safer in the cargo hold than in the cabin. The transport secretary said he “can’t discuss the detail of the evolving threat” but he believes the UK Government has “taken the right decision” when it comes to protecting its citizens.

“There are things we cannot set out in public that lie behind the decisions we take,” says Grayling, insisting that the new restrictions, which solely apply to flights from certain Middle Eastern and North African countries, have “nothing to do with singling out countries”.

“This is not a vote of no confidence in the security measures in any other country,” says Grayling. “We don’t want this to be seen as a thumbs-down to security measures in other countries.”

The UK restrictions differ from those put in place in the US when it comes to the airlines and countries affected. Notably, the UK restrictions affect some of its own carriers, including British Airways, EasyJet and Monarch, and do not apply to the United Arab Emirates or Qatar.

The US restrictions do not affect any US carriers but do apply to UAE-based Emirates and Etihad Airways, and Doha-based Qatar Airways. Grayling’s response when questioned about the differences was to say that “we do not always have to take exactly the same decisions” as the US.

Transfer passengers who board a flight to the UK that originated in one of the six affected countries will also be required to put any laptops and tablets into the hold. “These rules will apply to transfer passengers,” says Grayling, adding that they will be “subject to the same at-gate checks” and if they have one of the banned devices on their person “it will be placed in the hold of the aircraft”.

On the issue of passengers who travel with hand baggage only, Grayling says he expects “airlines will work out a system that ensures people are not worse off as a result of these changes”.

The new restrictions are intended to be temporary at this stage, but the length of time for which they remain in place depends on the perceived level of threat. “In terms of the time limit we all hope this is a temporary measure but we will keep it under review,” says Grayling, adding that the restrictions will apply for “as long as necessary to protect passengers”.

It is “very much the responsibility of the airlines” to explain to passengers how to comply with the new measures, says the transport secretary, adding that airlines have been “enormously helpful and co-operative”.

A British Airways spokesman tells RGN that the airline is “informing the customer in advance via email and other means”, and “will also be making announcements at the airport and when customers check in”.

He adds: “This ban only affects eight flights out of around 800 flights. Customers are still more than welcome to watch entertainment on their mobile devices, providing they meet the specified requirements.”

Whether the ban is later amended to include additional destinations is an open question.

Says Grayling: “It is very much my hope that we won’t need to take further steps…but we need to be constantly mindful of the evolving security threat.”

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