US banning uncharged mobile devices on flights

4 August 2014

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, which is an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, will not allow passengers to carry an uncharged cell phone or mobile device on flights that are destined for the U.S. The directive is already causing confusion at airports abroad, as passengers are asked to power on devices and any uncharged units are being disallowed. Much of the focus has been placed on the popular iPhone and Samsung Galaxy smartphones, and although no countries have been mentioned in the statement issued by the TSA, there are claims that passengers flying from the Middle East, Europe and Africa may face some scrutiny. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says that the measures are more anticipatory than reactionary, as the department is continually evaluating perceived threats.

The directive to ban any uncharged cell phone also extends to tablets, laptops, e-book readers and other mobile devices, and comes amid intelligence reports that terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may be developing plans to blow up airliners with mobile devices that can pass through screening procedures without being detected. There are also concerns that terrorists are using dummy electronic units to build explosive devices. Amid the heightened security, there may also be closer checks being made on travelers’ shoes as there are concerns that bombs that are harder to detect may be built into shoes.

Packing explosives in an uncharged cell phone is not a new tactic,and one of the better known cases of such a plan is the death of Palestinian suicide bomber Yahya Ayyash in 1996, who was assassinated when he answered a cell phone that was stuffed with explosives. There was no indication that an immediate threat had been detected, but officials say that evidence collected show that an al-Qaeda affiliate known as the Islamic Nusra Front and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is recognized for plotting such attacks, may have tested new bombs in Syria, where Nusra continues to fight to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

There was no direct statement from the department on how and where the security measures will be implemented, but it can be assumed that millions of travelers will be affected. The DHS says that disruptions and delays can be expected, but it is hoped that the inconveniences can be minimized. They are encouraging passengers who have long-distance flights scheduled to arrive early to allow extra time for screening. As the threats continue to exist, there has been neither indication nor denial that the measures will be extended to domestic flights, and there has been no comment from any of the airlines based in the U.S.

The measure to ban any uncharged cell phone or mobile device on flights destined for the U.S. can be seen as more than an inconvenience as holiday travel is increased, and there will be persons returning from destinations with less sophisticated security procedures. There are also some reports that one of the locations affected is London’s Heathrow airport, which is an international hub. Transport Canada indicates that some security measures have been implemented for flights in Canada.