By Allison Lampert
MONTREAL (Reuters) - A United Nations agency has launched efforts to craft global guidance for the use of laptops and other portable electronics in aircraft passenger cabins after selective bans by the United States and Britain, made in response to security threats, angered some passengers and Middle East airlines.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has pushed forward with the plan after certain countries like the United Arab Emirates and Egypt complained their airlines were being unfairly penalized by the American and British bans, which relegate laptops and other portable electronics to the cargo hold on certain routes, three sources familiar with the matter said.
But while ICAO is expected to come up with global recommendations to counter the risk from hidden explosives in laptops used in passenger cabins, the agency cannot stop countries from imposing bans, said one of the aviation industry sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are private.
In March, the U.S. announced laptop restrictions on flights originating from 10 airports in countries including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey, which impact major international carriers including Emirates [EMIRA.UL], Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines, but not U.S.-based carriers, none of which fly to those airports.
Britain's restrictions, which quickly followed, do not include the UAE or Qatar but will affect Turkish Airlines and UK-based carriers including British Airways, easyJet and Monarch [MONA.UL].
An ICAO working paper seen by Reuters reaffirmed concerns that laptops are a greater security risk in the passenger cabin than in the hold, because of the threat that hidden explosives could be detonated manually. But it has asked its experts to weigh this against the risk of putting devices with flammable batteries unattended in the baggage compartment.
ICAO's aviation security panel is expected to make recommendations on device restrictions by mid-June, an ICAO spokesman said by email.
Montreal-headquartered ICAO, which met on Tuesday to discuss the ban, does not impose rules, but holds industry clout in setting safety and security standards for international aviation that are usually followed by its 191-member countries.
ICAO has been asked "to identify a possible global approach to mitigate the security risk associated with large portable electronic devices," according to the paper.
"The threat to aircraft from concealed improvised explosive devices has been the greatest security risk to commercial aircraft for some years," the paper said, citing two explosions in 2016 at airports in Somalia because of IEDs concealed in laptops.
Some countries, such as Australia, are introducing new security checks, but not bans, on flights from certain Middle East countries to combat the risk of hidden IEDs.
During an informal ICAO briefing in April, some countries like the UAE complained that the ban risks creating "market distortions," that would give certain carriers advantages over others, the three sources said.
The ban could deal a blow to fast-growing Gulf airlines serving business-class passengers who want to work on their laptops on flights out of hubs like Dubai and Doha.
A spokeswoman for the UAE's civil aviation department could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal, additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris and Alexander Cornwell in Dubai; Editing by Bernard Orr)