The US Government has thrown the world of travel into chaos again by banning tablets, laptops and other electronic devices from cabins of planes originating in 8 African and Middle Eastern countries (Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates). These devices will have to be packed in checked-in luggage.
The US transportation safety administration (TSA) has stated and other security officials have said that the move is in response to intelligence indicating that the group ISIS is developing the capability of targeting aircraft with explosives hidden in batteries in electronic devices. There has been no indication that this move is in response to a specific threat of a planned attack.
The UK followed with a similar ban except that it only covers 6 countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.
Is it really safer to put them in the hold?
The TSA is the same agency that has in the past said
“Electronics … should be packed in carry-on luggage because they are typically fragile, expensive, and more prone to breaking if transported in checked baggage.”
Add to that the fact that airlines and aviation authorities have been especially cautious of putting devices with lithium batteries in the cargo hold and the move of the US starts to make less sense as a security measure.
There has already been extra safety rules regarding electronic devices being carried to the US with the requirement that the batteries are fully charged so that the devices can be switched on to check if they are functioning by security staff. That check, as well as a visual inspection of the device stopped being an option when the devices are put in checked in luggage.
Terrorism experts believe that these moves will do little to minimise the threat of a remote-controlled explosive device. If it is really the case that these devices will be hard for regular security to spot, it is should be as easy to get them onto a flight from a country not covered by this ban. There is nothing intrinsically unsafe about Dubai International Airport. In fact, Abu Dhabi International Airport, also covered by the ban already implements the US Homeland Security preclearance techniques.
There is then the question devices with lithium batteries and the potential for fires. This is actually made worse by the fact that these devices could be thrown about when inside luggage, not only causing damage to the device but potentially damaging the battery and causing a fire.
For travellers, it is not just the inconvenience of not being able to work on a laptop or tablet during the flight, but for the business traveller, travelling with carry-on luggage only will no longer be an option. This may seem like a small thing but waiting for luggage and risking losing that luggage will add a significant stress to business travel.
Dubai International Airport in the United Arab Emirates is the busiest airport in the world and handled 78 million passengers in 2015. It is the main hub for Emirates which flies direct to the US. It has been suggested that the fact that Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways were included in this ban by the US but not the UK could be more to do with actions by their US competitors than anything related to safety.
US airlines have long complained that the Gulf State airlines receive subsidies from their governments and so represent unfair competition. President Trump has been threatening to deal with these airlines and protect the US’s national carriers.
Tips for Travellers
For travellers needing to go to the US who would normally travel through one of the effected airports, all electronic devices other than mobile phones will have to be packed in checked-in luggage.
All of the advice from insurers, travel sites and the TSA themselves has always been not to pack an expensive laptop in checked in luggage. If you do, then make sure that there is a backup left at home or work, that the computer is locked and preferably the disks encrypted.
Make sure the device is switched off and not simply asleep. Putting the device in a protective sleeve may help with impacts and using a solid shell suitcase an advantage.
For some travellers, leaving laptops in checked in luggage will represent a security risk and it is highly likely that security agencies, amongst others, will take advantage of the relative ease of access to targeted devices to examine them.
If at all possible, take an alternative inexpensive laptop, Chromebook or tablet instead. Keep sensitive documents on a USB and not on the device.
It is entirely possible that other countries may follow the move of the US and UK but it may still be possible to take a different airline using a route that doesn’t go through the Middle East.
Another option is not to travel to the US at all. 6,600 academics have signed a pledge to boycott all international conferences held in the US in response to Trump’s first “Muslim Ban”.