This week, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rolled out expanded screenings for tablets, e-readers, and other small electronic devices in some—but not all—security lanes at 10 different airports on the U.S. mainland and in Puerto Rico.
Airports affected by the new tests include Boise Airport (BOI) in Idaho; Colorado Springs Airport (COS) in Colorado; Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW); Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL); Logan International Airport (BOS) in Boston; Los Angeles International Airport (LAX); Lubbock Preston Smith International Airport (LBB) in Texas; Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) in San Juan, Puerto Rico; McCarran International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas; and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX).
According to various reports, the new procedures are only tests for now; there has been no official word about whether they could become permanent or be rolled out on a broader scale.
In a statement released earlier this week, the TSA said it will do whatever it must to maintain security: “TSA’s top priority is to protect the traveling public, and every policy and security procedure in place is designed to mitigate threats to passengers and the aviation sector, which we know our adversaries continue to target.”
One thing is certain: The expanded screenings slow down throughput at checkpoints in affected airports. Specifically, the new screening procedures require travelers to separate all electronics bigger than a cell phone into separate bins and send the devices through X-ray scanners the same way they send laptops—on their own. The rules apply to devices such as tablets, e-readers, and large-format phones. Previously TSA had allowed these devices to stay in bags during scans.
A recent report from CNN quoted a TSA official who said the new testing was an effort to stay ahead of evolving threats—potential risks that U.S. intelligence officials believe may be connected to small bombs in seemingly innocuous devices.
Darby LaJoye, the TSA’s assistant administrator for security operations, stressed there were no changes to what’s allowed in carry-on bags. At least not yet.
Various reports, including a story on Bloomberg, have indicated that the Department of Homeland Security has been in ongoing talks with EU officials about extending a prohibition on electronic devices larger than mobile phones from passenger areas on U.S.-bound flights from Europe.
The agency barred the devices on flights from 10 Middle Eastern and North African airports, starting on March 21st.
That ban—which could cost travelers up to $1 billion—ostensibly is separate from the expanded screening tests launched this week. The CNN story said the new procedures were brought about by recent black-ops work to carry threats past TSA agents. The piece cited an anonymous source who noted that over the past few months, undercover agents were able to sneak banned items through checkpoints more than 90 percent of the time. Apparently, it can be difficult to get reads on multiple electronic devices when travelers have more than one.
The story suggested that scanning each device separately would make it easier for TSA officers to see X-rays more clearly.
Still, many experts questioned the timing and strategy of these tests. Henry Harteveldt, a cofounder of Atmosphere Research Group, said it seemed “strange” that the TSA decided to roll out these tests just days before the unofficial start of summer, a three-month period that, historically, sees a spike in the number of leisure travelers.
“Not only will it likely take two or three weeks for TSA agents to become familiar with the new rules, but during the summer you have a whole bunch of travelers who aren’t as accustomed to the rules at checkpoints in the first place,” Harteveldt said. “Even if this slows down standard security lines by 5 or 10 percent, that can lead to an exponential disruption on travelers and inconvenience a lot of people.”
Harteveldt added that while TSA PreCheck members were supposed to be exempt from the new tests, he heard reports that PreCheck customers were asked to submit devices for expanded scanning, too.
Calls to TSA to clarify whether expanded screenings applied to PreCheck customers were not returned.
“One of the reasons people sign up for PreCheck is to avoid the hassle [of taking out their electronics for additional screening],” Harteveldt said. “Now if they have to take out their devices like everyone else, what’s the point [of paying the extra fee to join]?”
Details of this story will continue to evolve. One thing is certain: Travelers should allow extra time at security checkpoints if flying into or out of the airports testing expanded screening. There’s simply no telling how the new procedures will impact wait times. Better to be safe than to miss a flight.