US and UK Now Both Imposing Bans on Electronics, Questions Remain

The UK and the US will both be imposing bans on certain electronics starting March 25th, 2017, for flights departing from certain airports in the Middle East and North Africa. This is a controversial move by both governments but it’s vital to know exactly what each policy says in order to avoid confusion. Here’s a run down on the ban and some issues I take with the policy.

What exactly is banned?

The US ban targets electronic devices larger than a smartphone. The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) gave a (non-exhaustive) list of examples:

  • Laptops
  • Tablets
  • E-readers
  • Cameras
  • Portable DVD players
  • Electronic game units larger than a smartphone
  • Travel printers/scanners

In response to the ambiguities and variations involved with phone sizes, the DHS further states that “[s]martphones are commonly available around the world and their size is well understood by most passengers who fly internationally.” In other words, passengers will be expected to rely on common sense when deciding whether or not they can bring electronics on board.

However, the UK  announced more specific parameters: nothing bigger than 16cm (6.3ins) long, 9.3cm (3.6ins) wide or 1.5cm (0.6ins) deep will be allowed.

It seems to me that mobile phones could definitely be used as explosives or as detonators for explosives so it’s a little odd that there’s not an all-out ban. But according to several sources, it’s part of balancing the threat against the public’s need for minimal disruption caused to their travel.

What airlines are affected?

These are the airlines affected for the US ban:

  • Royal Jordanian
  • EgyptAir
  • Turkish Airlines
  • Saudi Arabian Airlines
  • Kuwait Airways
  • Royal Air Maroc
  • Qatar Airways
  • Emirates
  • Etihad Airways.

There are the airpots affected for the US ban:

  1. Mohammed V International, Casablanca, Morocco
  2. Ataturk Airport, Istanbul, Turkey
  3. Cairo International Airport, Egypt
  4. Queen Alia International, Amman, Jordan
  5. King Abdulaziz International, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
  6. King Khalid International, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
  7. Kuwait International Airport
  8. Hamad International, Doha, Qatar
  9. Abu Dhabi International, United Arab Emirates
  10. Dubai International, United Arab Emirates

It strikes me as very odd that Abu Dhabi International Airport is on the list considering that it has a pre-clearance for customs (that even caters to Global Entry) and even “trusted travelers” won’t be allowed to bring on their large electronics. If the screening methods there are up to US standards, how does it make sense to still implement a ban from their airport?

Image via BBC.

The British are doing things a little different. They’ve announced their ban that applies to:

  • Turkey
  • Lebanon
  • Jordan
  • Egypt
  • Tunisia
  • Saudi Arabia

So for the British, the following airlines are affected:

  • Turkish Airlines
  • Pegasus Airways
  • Atlas-Global Airlines
  • Middle East Airlines
  • Egyptair
  • Royal Jordanian
  • Tunis Air
  • Saudia

In addition to those, the ban is even affecting British-based airlines.

  • British Airways
  • EasyJet
  • Monarch
  • Thomas Cook
  • Thomson

It’s worth noting that the big three Middle East carriers (Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar) are not affected by the UK ban.

My biggest question mark of this policy is: how exactly is this geographical restriction going to be effective? A terrorist would only have to venture outside of one of those countries to be able to bring their laptop with them on board.

Maybe there’s intelligence suggesting that terrorists have infiltrated or nearly infiltrated security at those respective airports. In that case, a terrorist would presumably be less likely to be successful bringing their explosive on board a flight departing from Europe versus Saudi Arabia, etc.

The issue with this is the fact that the British have reportedly relied on the same intelligence and yet have enacted a different ban policy that excludes the big three Middle East carriers: Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar. What’s more, the UK is allowing their policy to affect flights on some of their own carriers, such as their largest, British Airways.

A lot of people suspect that the legacy carriers in the US and/or related interest groups and politicians have had influence on this call, as there’s been a recent push back against the big three Middle East carriers for taking large government subsidies in violation of the open skies treaty. I definitely don’t think this is some manufactured threat that doesn’t exist (could anyone really doubt ISIS or a similar terrorist regime plotting something like this?), but these moves do make me question if there could be a “dual purpose” for why the US chose to include Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar in the ban and the UK didn’t….

Why are they banning electronics?

Multiple sources are reporting that intelligence is showing that terrorists are continuing to target airlines flying to the United States. The Washing Post stated that “[a]n unidentified person familiar with the issue has told The Washington Post that officials have long been worried by a Syrian terrorist group that is trying to build bombs inside electronic devices that are hard to detect.”

So there seems to be a cognizable threat that electronics are being used to house explosives and that’s the primary threat. However, The New York Times stated that “the Trump administration maintained that the new restrictions did not signal a credible, specific threat of an imminent attack.

There hasn’t been a lot of clarity on what exactly poses the threat, and I think that’s been a major point of concern and frustration to many. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for secrecy with measures such as this, but given the recent “travel ban” attempts by the Trump Administration targeting countries in the same region, I can see why many suspect that this is simply Trump’s travel ban “re-packaged” in a way that evades legal scrutiny and bolsters US airlines’ position in the market.

It seems like two separate, yet controversial goals might be being served with this new policy.

How will this be effective?  

If the threat is an explosive contained within an electronic device, it’s hard to see how keeping them in checked luggage diminishes that threat. If we’re talking about improvised explosive devices (IEDs), do terrorists not have the technology to detonate those remotely? (Maybe they don’t but I’d think they could.) And aren’t IEDs likely to do just as much damage if they go off in the luggage hold as they would if they went off in the cabin?

And on another note — is it really safe to store all of those lithium batteries in the hold where access to them is limited?

If anything, it almost seems like it’s easier to get away with storing items like that in checked luggage rather than going through security with it (although I’ve heard scanning techniques are more advanced for stored luggage than the x-ray machines used for carry-ons).

It seems to me that enhanced screening is what’s needed the most. Perhaps this is a stalling technique until we can introduce more sophisticated screening equipment and techniques?

How long are these changes going to be in effect?

The DHS states that “[t]he new procedures remain in place until the threat changes.” However, according to BBC, an Emirates spokeswoman told Reuters news agency Emirates understood that the US ban would come into effect on March 25th and only remain until October 14th 2017. Other sources have remarked that it could extend beyond that time if necessary.

Who will be impacted? 

These changes have the potential to severely impact business travel and therefore the economy. An estimated 50 flights each day into the United States will likely be affected and many of those flight will be carrying passengers who bring a lot of revenue to these carriers: business travelers.

Many travelers use the UAE (home to Emirates and Etihad) along with Doha to connect to and from Asia and Africa and other parts of the globe. This could greatly impact business travelers who consider it essential to have access to their laptops in order to be productive on these long-haul flights. Not only that, but many won’t want to subject themselves to the security risk of having their luggage stolen, especially if they’d be carrying proprietary information.

The result might be that many passengers may turn to other airlines, such as US carriers to route them to their destination, which could mean that US airlines will gobble up more of the business class market.

Final word 

I won’t pretend to be an expert on counter-terrorism or airline security, but it seems to me that there are some big questions looming regarding the effectiveness of these policies. I’m all for national security, even if that means making my travel experience a little more frustrating or even uncomfortable at times, but these policies at the very least leave a lot of questions unanswered.