WASHINGTON — Urging that defenses against terrorism be made more vigilant, Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner proposed Wednesday that an international aviation body launch a review that ultimately could prohibit passengers from carrying portable computers and radios aboard commercial airplanes.
Skinner asked the International Civil Aviations Organization to assess the "problems" posed by allowing such electronic devices on board aircraft. If such devices were determined to aid terrorism, he said, new regulations should be drafted to restrict their use.
"Once a high-risk situation has been identified . . .," Skinner said in an address to the group's conference in Montreal, "all carriers and facilities subject to these higher threats should be uniformly subject to strengthened security requirements."
In a televised interview earlier, Skinner indicated that the U.S. government itself might consider banning computers and radios from passenger sections of aircraft.
"What we're trying to do is . . . identify whether that is in fact a problem, and if it is a problem, then put some rules and regulations into place" to keep such devices from being used as bombs or detonators aboard commercial airliners, Skinner said.
Security experts have said that powerful plastic explosives can easily be hidden in radios and computers where they are difficult to detect with X-rays. An explosion aboard an Athens-bound TWA jet in 1985, for example, which tore a hole in the fuselage and sucked four passengers to their deaths, is believed to have been caused by a bomb placed in a tape player.
But the increasing popularity of portable computers means that restrictions on the use of such devices aboard airplanes would considerably hinder the way large numbers of frequent travelers now conduct business.
'Part of Heritage
Acknowledging the potential for controversy, Skinner said in the interview on NBC-TV: "Let's not overreact. The radio is part of the American heritage.
"But," he continued, "we want to see what role they play and what can be done to ensure that radios going on airplanes are really radios and nothing more."
The conference in Montreal was convened in the wake of the Dec. 21 bombing of a Pan Am Boeing 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground. Transportation officials from 33 countries attended the session.
In his televised interview, Skinner said he expects the British government shortly to make public results of its investigation into how the bombing took place. But he declined to comment further, saying that the official announcement should come from the United Kingdom.
Skinner's speech reiterated a U.S. request that all carry-on and hold baggage be X-rayed at high-risk airports around the world. It called also for expedited development and implementation of state-of-the-art technology able to detect explosives not easily identified by the X-ray and metal detector machines currently in use.
"People around the world are calling for leadership and decisive action to eliminate the gruesome, common threat of terrorism in the skies," the transportation secretary told the council.
"We owe it to them, and to the families and loved ones of all who have suffered from these despicable and cowardly acts, to meet this problem head on by raising civil aviation security standards."