By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Transportation Security Administration said on Monday it was lifting a ban on passengers on Saudi Arabian Airlines carrying large electronics like laptops onboard U.S.-bound flights, the last carrier under the restrictions.
In March, U.S. officials imposed restrictions on passengers carrying laptops and other large electronic gear in cabins on nine airlines, most of which were Middle Eastern carriers, to address the potential threat of hidden explosives.
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Last month, U.S. officials announced new security requirements for all airlines rather than an expansion of the laptop ban and have been dropping the restrictions from airlines as they boosted security.
A TSA spokesman said the U.S. government had lifted the restrictions at Saudi Arabian Airlines' main hub in Jeddah at King Abdulaziz International Airport on Monday. U.S. government officials will visit Riyadh's King Khalid International Airport "later this week to confirm compliance there as well," spokesman James Gregory said.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a revised directive to airlines around the world in response to requests that it clarify aviation security measures scheduled to begin taking effect later this week.
An airline official briefed on the matter said the directive gave airlines more flexibility and additional time to obtain explosive trace detection equipment. The official was not authorized to discuss sensitive security issues with the media and requested anonymity.
The directive includes technical adjustments, agency officials said, declining to release the text. European airlines have been pushing for changes to meet the new requirements.
DHS has said that it could impose new restrictions on laptops if airlines do not make security upgrades.
European and U.S. officials told Reuters that airlines have until July 19, to put in place increased explosive trace detection screening and other measures and 120 days to comply with other security measures, including enhanced screening of airline passengers.
The new requirements include enhanced passenger screening at foreign airports, increased security protocols around aircraft and in passenger areas and expanded canine screening. They affect 325,000 airline passengers on about 2,000 commercial flights arriving daily in the United States, on 180 airlines from 280 airports in 105 countries.
A group of airline groups, including the International Air Transport Association, criticized the new requirements in a July 14 letter to U.S. officials saying it is a "fundamental shift away from the risk-based approach" and said it would be "extremely difficult" to "meet the deadlines because of the lack of availability of screening equipment technology and resources."
TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein defended the new security requirements unveiled in June that were aimed at avoiding expansion of the laptop ban. She said the agency has been working with airlines for months to keep them informed on security issues.
"As we look to stay ahead of the evolving threats, we’ll be working with global aviation stakeholders to expand security measures even further," she said in an email, adding the government has "seen a web of threats to commercial aviation."
(Reporting by David Shepardson Additional reporting by Julia Fioretti in Brussels; Editing by Tom Brown and Marguerita Choy)