It’s not often that I share my thoughts about topics like this here. However, as the recent onboard electronics ban by the United States raised some questions in my mind, I decided to write this post to both share the questions I am trying to understand, and also share my thoughts on them.
But first, let’s take a quick look at what the ban encompasses.
A Brief Overview of the Electronics Ban
Basically, electronic devices larger than smartphones – laptops, cameras, game consoles, and so on – cannot be carried onboard, but only in checked luggage on flights from ten select airports to the United States.
Based on the above, the following nine airlines are affected by the ban:
- Etihad Airways
- Kuwait Airways
- Qatar Airways
- Royal Air Maroc
- Royal Jordanian Airlines
- Turkish Airlines
The airlines were given 96 hours to comply with the ban.
The official rationale seems to be that there has been some recent “evaluated intelligence” that terrorists will continue to target commercial flights and might try to smuggle explosives onboard hidden in electronic devices.
My Questions and Thoughts About the Ban
Now, let me share some of my questions and thoughts about the ban. I would be more than happy to hear your thoughts and comments on my thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this post, as I am still trying to understand the ban, its benefits and its drawbacks.
#1: How will this ban be implemented?
This was the first question that came to my mind. With the liquids ban, it was “easy” – it applies to all flights departing from an airport. However, the electronics ban only applies to select flights from an airport.
The easiest way to check for electronic devices besides the “honor system” is with the X-ray machine. The security check point is, though, shared with other flights.
Will security staff be trained to look at the destination on the boarding pass, and screen for the devices based on that?
If so, I can imagine the ban being a hassle not only to passengers traveling to the United States, but also the rest of the passengers traveling through the terminal, as I my guess would be that there will be some confusion regarding the ban among the passengers, especially in the beginnings.
The other way would be to manually check luggage at the gate, however, that just sounds too impractical unless a mobile X-ray would be used.
As I see it, there are two practically implementable options – one would be dedicating one of the security lanes at the terminal to US bound flights. But then, what if one person books a ticket to the United States and his accomplice books a ticket to some other non-affected country, and passes the “dangerous laptop” to the US bound person inside the secure area?
That really leaves only one option (outside of having a dedicated US/UK flights terminal) – screening at the departure gate before boarding. Whether the luggage will be checked manually, or more likely using mobile X-ray machines, the boarding will probably take considerably longer.
#2: What about all those checked-in lithium-ion batteries?
Currently, electronic devices can be checked in, however, spare batteries need to be carried in carry-on due to their volatile nature. Given that most people opt to carry their devices with them, the amount of passengers’ batteries in the cargo hold is probably fairly low.
If people are forced to check their devices in, the number of batteries in the cargo hold will increase significantly. With that, the risk of a battery igniting in the cargo hold will increase. And even though I am not a professional, my guess would be that it is much easier to contain a fire in the passenger cabin compared to a fire trapped in the cargo hold.
Just imagine the recent “exploding headphones” incident – what if the headphones were in the cargo hold? While the ban might help prevent “truly dangerous devices” from getting onboard, it will trap the risk of seemingly safe electronic devices catching on fire inside the cargo hold.
#3: Is a potentially threatening device safer in the cargo hold?
Now, let’s assume there is a dangerous person trying to smuggle an explosive laptop onboard. How much difference does it make that the laptop will be in the cargo hold instead of the passenger cabin? My guess would be that with today’s technology, if someone were to carry an explosive laptop onboard, they could easily detonate it using a timer or their smartphone – which is allowed onboard – as a remote control.
#4: What about one-stop flights and transfer flights?
Interestingly, flights from Dubai which is on the list to the United States that make a stop in Europe are not affected. Also, one might expect Pakistan and Kuwait to be on the list, however, the flights of Kuwait Airways and Pakistan International to the United States make a stop in Europe as well which might be one of the reasons why they did not get on the list.
While I am not sure whether passengers on the Emirates flights continuing from Europe to the United States have to de-board and clear security again or not, if they do not have to, that kind of kills the purpose of the ban.
Similarly, the potentially dangerous passengers could take a one-stop flight as well. Again, I might be wrong, but it seems to me highly unlikely that a potential attacker would be fixated on flying on one of the nine airlines while carrying out his attack.
#5: How about the inconveniences to passengers?
From the passenger convenience and comfort standpoint, there are two major issues with the ban.
One is, of course, the risk of the electronic device getting lost. In the past, I was forced to check my camera bag at my departure gate in Frankfurt. Luckily, I took the camera out of it, and carried it onboard. As you can guess, the bag was not loaded onto the aircraft and it took a day for it to arrive. Had I not taken the camera out, I would have lost half a day worth of perfect weather spotting.
Since then, I make sure I never check neither my camera nor my PC – the feeling of not getting your bag immediately at your destination is frustrating enough when the bag contains clothes. The frustration is even bigger when a camera with precious photos or laptop with important data does not come out on the other end.
The other problem is, of course, the lost productivity. That will affect mostly business men who work on the flight on tuning their presentations and so on before landing and heading to a meeting. It will also affect people like me who blog in their free time – quite a few of the posts on KN Aviation were written onboard a flight. And, it will affect kids who will not be able to kill time on a 12-hour flight playing their favorite video games.
#6: Really, Abu Dhabi?
The one airport on the list that stands out to me is Abu Dhabi. The airport offers US border and customs pre-clearance meaning the passengers on the flight are vetted by the US government before they even get on the flight to the United States. In fact, their arrival in the United States is no different than an arrival of a transcontinental flight from LAX into JFK or any other domestic flight.
According to the US Department of Homeland security, “TSA requires that passenger and accessible property screening at a foreign preclearance airport conforms to U.S. aviation security screening standards so that the U.S.-bound aircraft can disembark passengers at a domestic U.S. air terminal without needing to be rescreened.”
Based on the above, the security standards at Abu Dhabi for the pre-cleared flights should be on par with the standards in the United States. As far as I understand, not all flights are pre-cleared in Abu Dhabi, but the ban does not seem to mention an exception for the flights that are pre-cleared.
#7: Is this a security policy or a trade policy?
Finally, considering all of the above, this widespread question comes to my mind. Complaints by the US airlines about the ME3 have been growing, as the presence of Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad in the United States grows.
Is it a coincidence that the hubs of the three big Middle Eastern airlines are included in the ban? Especially, given that Abu Dhabi has US pre-clearance facilities. Also, interestingly, a similar ban which followed in the United Kingdom does not include the UAE or Qatar – the homes of the ME3.
While it is impossible to tell whether or not the new security policy is just a trade policy in disguise, I think the chances are quite high that the inclusion of the UAE and Qatar in the list had more to do with the growing strength of the ME3 in the US rather than with security.
After all, passengers traveling from the region to the United States will now be more likely to opt for one of the three US airlines with a transfer in Europe instead of flying on Emirates, Qatar Airways, or Etihad.
And, I mean, why would a passenger travelling from Cairo to Dubai to New York be more dangerous than the same passenger traveling from Cairo to Paris to New York?
As I am no security expert, I can’t make any definitive conclusion about the ban. However, to me it seems like a security measure that was either not completely thought through and implemented just for the sake of increasing security measures – which is different from actually increasing safety. Or as a policy that was designed to be a trade policy in disguise.
While I generally do not fly from the region to the United States, if I had to, the ban would make me choose an airline that is not on the list as I do not feel comfortable checking my laptop or camera in. And I can imagine I am not the only one.
It will be interesting to see how this ban affects the loads and yields of the US routes operated by Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad. Given that the ban is indefinite, I would not be surprised if the three airlines started reducing capacity into the United States due to lower loads if the ban stays on in its current form for a long time.
In the meantime, I am curious to see what solutions airlines will come up with to reduce the inconvenience to the passengers as much as possible while still complying with the ban.
So far, it seems like Emirates is introducing a solution where passengers will be able to hand in their devices before boarding the flight and retrieve them right after arrival. Great for the passengers convenience, but I am not sure how safe it is to have large amount of devices stored together – but I am sure they thought that through.
Anyways, to summarize, I believe that from a passenger point of view, the effects of the ban are quite large and I hope the ban will not become universally adopted for all US bound (and eventually all) flights.
These are just my thoughts. I am interested in hearing your thoughts as well – feel free to share in the comments.
What do you think about the new electronics ban?
Do you think it will stay on for long in its current form? Do you think it will gradually be adopted more and more widely?
What effect do you think it will have on the ME3 airlines’ US routes?