The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday issued a directive to all commercial air carriers flying into the United States from foreign airports calling for enhanced security measures to thwart evolving threats by terrorists carried on their persons and in their in tablet and laptop computers that are targeted at commercial aviation.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said that terrorist groups persist as a threat to commercial aviation and are looking for new ways to hide explosives, hijack planes, and recruit airport and airline insiders, driving the need for new security measures at airports overseas with flights to the U.S.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. Photo: DHS
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. Photo: DHS

“Terrorists want to bring down aircraft to instill fear, disrupt our economics, and undermine our way of life,” Kelly said at an event hosted by the Center for New American Security. “And it works, which is why they still see aviation as a crown jewel target. The threat has not diminished. In fact, I am concerned that we are seeing renewed interest on the part of terrorist groups to go after the aviation sector, from bombing aircraft to attacking airports on the ground, as we saw in Brussels and Istanbul.”

Kelly said that he has been talking to “everyone” about aviation security, including private sector and international partners.

“My conclusion is this: it is time to raise the global baseline of aviation security.”

The new security measures will include “seen and unseen” changes as well as “enhanced screening of electronic devices, more thorough passenger vetting, and new measures designed to mitigate the potential threat of insider attacks,” Kelly said. He also called the enhancements risk-based, noting that they can be dialed up or down.

A senior DHS official briefing reporters on background ahead of Kelly’s remarks said the new measures include “enhanced screening of passengers, enhanced screening of personal electronic devices larger than a cell phone, and enhanced security protocols both around the aircraft and in the passenger areas of those airports.”

DHS is giving domestic and foreign carriers with commercial flights into the U.S. some room to phase in the strengthened security over the short and medium-term, the official said, adding that some airlines already have the necessary measures in place or are rolling them out.

The specific enhancements and timelines are not being announced publicly, although the official said that individuals flying into the U.S. can expect a more “intensive” screening process. This doesn’t mean the process will necessarily take longer, the official said.

The official said that beyond the more immediate measures, DHS is “pushing” airlines, airports and other key stakeholders “to take the next step, which is deployment of K9 assets, next-generation screening technology, and the establishment of additional DHS preclearance locations” at overseas airports. DHS preclearance operations are run at more than a dozen locations in six countries and are managed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection law enforcement personnel who conduct the same types of inspections on foreign air travelers they typically undergo upon arrival in the U.S.

Some of the next-generation technology the official referred to is already being evaluated in the U.S. and at some international airports. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration is currently testing advanced X-Ray systems at passenger checkpoint locations at two airports, Boston Logan International and Phoenix Sky Harbor.

The computed tomography (CT)-based scanners are essentially the same as those used by the agency to automatically screen checked baggage for explosives. For the checkpoint applications, several vendors have modified their systems to fit within more compact real estate and also to meet the carry-on threat requirements. In the new tests, TSA is evaluating systems supplied by L3 Technologies [LLL] and Integrated Defense & Security Solutions, both of whom have been certified by the agency. On Tuesday, American Airlines [AA] said it is buying multiple CT at the checkpoint machines being developed by Analogic Corp. [ALOG], whose ConneCT system isn’t yet certified by TSA.

For carriers that fail to comply with the new security directives, their passengers will not be allowed to bring large personal electronics onto the aircraft, including in checked baggage, the official said. Kelly said non-compliance could also mean an outright ban of flights to the U.S.

In March, DHS instituted a ban on large carry-on personal electronic devices on flights into the U.S. from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa in response to intelligence about the evolving capacity of terrorists to sneak threat through security and onto a plane. That ban is still in effect but those airports and airlines flying to the U.S. from those departure points can get out from the ban if they comply with the new DHS directives.

The senior official said that the measures DHS is seeking for carriers flying into the U.S. have already been deployed at U.S. airports the past few years, including adding K9 units, piloting next-generation technology, and adding new processes and protocols at airport checkpoints.

The official did not address a proposal by the Trump administration to cut mobile security teams, called VIPR units, which are used for random screening at airports and surface transportation nodes and at major events by TSA. The agency currently has 31 VIPR teams and the FY ’18 budget request would cut that to eight, a reduction that many members of Congress don’t support.

DHS has been engaging with its partners in Europe and elsewhere on the new measures, as well as its aviation stakeholders, the official said.

The directive applies to more than 280 airports and about 180 airlines that have direct commercial flights direct to the U.S. from 105 countries. The average number of daily flights affected is 2,100 and travelers are 325,000 but fluctuate depending on seasonal travel.