Extending the Airplane Laptop Ban
The Department of Homeland Security is rumored to be considering extending the current travel ban on large electronics for Middle Eastern flights to European ones as well. The likely reaction of airlines will be to implement new traveler programs, effectively allowing wealthier and more frequent fliers to bring their computers with them. This will only exacerbate the divide between the haves and the have-nots—all without making us any safer.
In March, both the United States and the United Kingdom required that passengers from 10 Muslim countries give up their laptop computers and larger tablets, and put them in checked baggage. The new measure was based on reports that terrorists would try to smuggle bombs onto planes concealed in these larger electronic devices.
The security measure made no sense for two reasons. First, moving these computers into the baggage holds doesn’t keep them off planes. Yes, it is easier to detonate a bomb that’s in your hands than to remotely trigger it in the cargo hold. But it’s also more effective to screen laptops at security checkpoints than it is to place them in checked baggage. TSA already does this kind of screening randomly and occasionally: making passengers turn laptops on to ensure that they’re functional computers and not just bomb-filled cases, and running chemical tests on their surface to detect explosive material.
And, two, banning laptops on selected flights just forces terrorists to buy more roundabout itineraries. It doesn’t take much creativity to fly Doha-Amsterdam-New York instead of direct. Adding Amsterdam to the list of affected airports makes the terrorist add yet another itinerary change; it doesn’t remove the threat.
Which brings up another question: If this is truly a threat, why aren’t domestic flights included in this ban? Remember that anyone boarding a plane to the United States from these Muslim countries has already received a visa to enter the country. This isn’t perfect security—the infamous underwear bomber had a visa, after all—but anyone who could detonate a laptop bomb on his international flight could do it on his domestic connection.
I don’t have access to classified intelligence, and I can’t comment on whether explosive-filled laptops are truly a threat. But, if they are, TSA can set up additional security screenings at the gates of US-bound flights worldwide and screen every laptop coming onto the plane. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had additional security screening at the gate. And they should require all laptops to go through this screening, prohibiting them from being stashed in checked baggage.
This measure is nothing more than security theater against what appears to be a movie-plot threat.
Banishing laptops to the cargo holds brings with it a host of other threats. Passengers run the risk of their electronics being stolen from their checked baggage—something that has happened in the past. And, depending on the country, passengers also have to worry about border control officials intercepting checked laptops and making copies of what’s on their hard drives.
Safety is another concern. We’re already worried about large lithium-ion batteries catching fire in airplane baggage holds; adding a few hundred of these devices will considerably exacerbate the risk. Both FedEx and UPS no longer accept bulk shipments of these batteries after two jets crashed in 2010 and 2011 due to combustion.
Of course, passengers will rebel against this rule. Having access to a computer on these long transatlantic flights is a must for many travelers, especially the high-revenue business-class travelers. They also won’t accept the delays and confusion this rule will cause as it’s rolled out. Unhappy passengers fly less, or fly other routes on other airlines without these restrictions.
I don’t know how many passengers are choosing to fly to the Middle East via Toronto to avoid the current laptop ban, but I suspect there may be some. If Europe is included in the new ban, many more may consider adding Canada to their itineraries, as well as choosing European hubs that remain unaffected.
As passengers voice their disapproval with their wallets, airlines will rebel. Already Emirates has a program to loan laptops to their premium travelers. I can imagine US airlines doing the same, although probably for an extra fee. We might learn how to make this work: keeping our data in the cloud or on portable memory sticks and using unfamiliar computers for the length of the flight.
A more likely response will be comparable to what happened after the US increased passenger screening post-9/11. In the months and years that followed, we saw different ways for high-revenue travelers to avoid the lines: faster first-class lanes, and then the extra-cost trusted traveler programs that allow people to bypass the long lines, keep their shoes on their feet and leave their laptops and liquids in their bags. It’s a bad security idea, but it keeps both frequent fliers and airlines happy. It would be just another step to allow these people to keep their electronics with them on their flight.
The problem with this response is that it solves the problem for frequent fliers, while leaving everyone else to suffer. This is already the case; those of us enrolled in a trusted traveler program forget what it’s like to go through “normal” security screening. And since frequent fliers—likely to be more wealthy—no longer see the problem, they don’t have any incentive to fix it.
Dividing security checks into haves and have-nots is bad social policy, and we should actively fight any expansion of it. If the TSA implements this security procedure, it should implement it for every flight. And there should be no exceptions. Force every politically connected flier, from members of Congress to the lobbyists that influence them, to do without their laptops on planes. Let the TSA explain to them why they can’t work on their flights to and from D.C.
This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.
EDITED TO ADD: US officials are backing down.