Charge Those Devices: U.S. Security Threat Leads to a Ban on Dead Phones

Passengers check in at London's Heathrow Airport Photograph by Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Dead smartphones and other drained gadgets won’t fly on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic under the latest directive from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Security officials consider smartphones a potential terror threat on flights to the United States. The policy, which took effect late on Monday, could lead to travel bottlenecks at London’s Heathrow Airport as affected passengers decide whether to rebook or leave the gadget behind, with directions on where to send it.

British Airways says it will cover the costs of shipping dead phones and other devices while travelers adjust to the new rule. Virgin Atlantic says “customers can leave it with the airline at the airport but the customer will be responsible for all costs to have it returned to them.” American, the world’s largest airline, said U.S.-bound customers with uncharged gadgets can choose to mail the device at the airport, discard it or be rebooked on a later flight for no fee.

The focus on screening smartphones and additional electronic devices comes amid fears that the Yemen-based terror group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has learned how to turn the phones into explosive devices that can avoid detection, Reuters reported on July 3,  citing U.S. officials that the news agency did not identify. The Wall Street Journal since reported that the new screening techniques cover “more than a dozen” airports in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, citing a person familiar with the agency’s directive. One area of particular concern is “non-metallic” explosive devices that are not easy to detect, the newspaper reported.

DHS did not specify which airports are affected by the order. The Transportation Security Administration, which is part of Homeland Security, mandates certain security protocols for airlines and airports with direct flights to the United States. In large European airports, for example, the airport’s security officials screen passengers and luggage but U.S. personnel also scrutinize passengers’ passports and other travel documents before boarding.

British Airways will also rebook customers who want to keep their uncharged devices, charge the battery, and take a later flight, spokeswoman Michelle Kropf said on Tuesday. Those who decide to leave devices behind can fill out instruction forms on where to send them. Virgin Atlantic has a similar plan for dead gadgets but won’t cover the cost of returning them to their owners. Neither airline wants a massive pile of dead smartphones and tablets that need to be shipped across the Atlantic.

Depending on how onerous they prove to be, the security changes could also dent the work of the Obama administration’s two-year-old “National Travel and Tourism Strategy,” which has set an annual goal of 100 million international visitors to the U.S. by the end of 2021. Those travelers are expected to spend $250 billion per year.

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