TSA tightens screening on cargo from six Middle East airlines

Six Middle East-based airlines must now participate in additional cargo screening for flights entering the United States, the Transportation Security Administration announced Monday.

The carriers are Egypt Air, Royal Jordanian, Saudia, Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Etihad. They operate flights to the U.S. from seven points-of-departure airports in five countries: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the U.A.E.

“These countries were chosen because of a demonstrated intent by terrorist groups to attack aviation from them,” the TSA said in a statement.

“While there is no current specific terrorist threat to U.S.-bound cargo, we are continually evaluating the intelligence and making decisions to ensure that we stay ahead of the threats to commercial aviation,” a TSA spokesman Thomas Kelly later told NBC News.

Image: Emirates passenger planes at Dubai airport in the United Arab Emirate

Emirates passenger planes at Dubai airport in the United Arab Emirates on May 8, 2014. Kamran Jebreili / AP file

The five Muslim-majority countries from where these six airlines fly were included in the Department of Homeland Security’s previous laptop ban, which prohibited passengers from packing in their carry-on luggage computers, tablets, cameras, and other electronic devices larger than a phone. The laptop ban was instituted in March and reversed in July.

Under the requirements, the six airlines must submit certain information to U.S. Customs and Border Protection about cargo destined for the U.S. before loading and departure. That includes standard information about the cargo contents as well as the names of senders and recipients. Approximately 250 flights per week will be affected, officials predicted.

In September, Turkey became the first country required to participate in the program, known as Air Cargo Advance Screening or ACAS. That followed a failed terror plot in Australia, in which a senior ISIS commander shipped partially assembled components of a bomb on a commercial cargo plane from Turkey.

The TSA called that incident an “ominous reminder” of the need to “keep our skies secure.”

ACAS, which is typically voluntary, was first created in response to attempted terrorist plots discovered in October 2010. Before ACAS, information about cargo was required four hours before a plane’s arrival in the U.S. CBP officials considered the system vulnerable, as potential threats could only be discovered after takeoff. ACAS mandates that cargo information be transmitted prior to loading and departure at a foreign port.

The tighter requirements for the six airlines went into effect Monday morning.

Abu Dhabi-based Etihad said in a statement to The Associated Press that it was “fully compliant with all regulatory security requirements across its operations.” It declined to elaborate on its security procedures.

Abu Dhabi International Airport already has a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility that allows passengers to clear screening they’d otherwise have to go through when landing in America. That means passengers can walk right out of the airport on arrival.

Qatar Airways, Saudia and Dubai-based Emirates didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Gulf and Mideast airlines already were stung by President Donald Trump’s travel bans, as well as last year’s since-lifted ban on laptops in airplane cabins. U.S. carriers have accused also Gulf-based airlines owned by governments of having unfair advantages in the market, something they’ve firmly denied.

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