A current proposal from the Department of Homeland Security to mandate that large electronic devices be relegated to checked luggage is facing stiff resistance from airlines and business travelers.
Under the proposal, travelers with electronic devices larger than a cell phone would be required to carry them as checked luggage. Depending on the airline, those devices may either be placed in each passenger’s luggage, or the airline may offer secure containers at the gate.
While the proposed ban is still in the proposal stage, it could go into effect at any time. U.S. officials have begun meeting with European Union representatives in Brussels on May 17, and will continue their meetings in Washington the following week.
The proposed ban is similar to one that began in March that prohibited laptops and other large electronics from passenger cabins between certain airports in the Middle East and North Africa.
That ban has resulted in a significant reduction in travel between those countries and the U.S., according to a report by Emirates Airlines. That airline has already cut back on its flights to the U.S. because of the laptop ban.
The new laptop ban would work like the current one from the Middle East, except that it would affect all flights from Europe to the U.S.
The ban raises a series of concerns that so far have not been addressed by the Department of Homeland Security, most notably large lithium-ion batteries that are currently not allowed in cargo holds by many airlines because of their propensity to catch fire.
Such a fire caused the crash of a UPS 747 cargo plane in Dubai in 2010. The Federal Aviation Administration has recommended that US airlines ban such batteries from cargo holds, as has the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) at the United Nations. The ICAO ban on carrying lithium-ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft went into effect in January, 2016.
But even if a DHS ban or large computers from passenger cabins could comply with the ICAO rules, it still faces enormous opposition from travelers. “It’s a disaster,” said Vijay Aggarwal, CEO of xCelor, who travels extensively between Europe and the U.S.
“For me, productivity is key,” Aggarwal said. “You sleep with your laptop, you wake up with your laptop. You’re connected to your laptop.” He said that the laptop ban would effectively put a 12-hour hole in his work day with every flight where it was in effect.
“What’s the point of TSA PreCheck?” he wondered. Precheck is a program run by the TSA that lets pre-cleared passengers bypass some of the more obtrusive security screenings at airports.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Victor Robert Garza, a military researcher from Monterey, Calif. “We’ve spent billions over the years [on air travel security] and I’m now expected to be on a twelve plus hour flight without my laptop or e-reader? Utterly ridiculous.”
Garza said that such a ban would significantly impact his productivity on flights. He said he travels outside the U.S. about three times a month. He also noted that many airlines, such as United, have removed the in-flight entertainment screens from their aircraft, and now rely on passengers using their own tablets or laptops for in-flight information.
Both Aggarwal and Garza pointed out that most business travelers don’t currently check
luggage, instead carrying it on as hand luggage. Requiring them to begin checking luggage would easily add significant delays to their flights.
“This is more security theater,” said Alan Zeichick, principal analyst at Camden Associates. “This is there to show that we are doing something, even though it may not make any difference at all.”
Zeichick pointed out that if there is a real threat, the laptop ban should apply to any aircraft from anywhere. He also noted that the requirement to check laptops with luggage had security ramifications. “I’ve had stuff stolen from checked luggage,” he said.
At this point, it’s not clear whether the DHS will have its way. But if it does, and the laptop ban goes into effect, there are a couple of not very good options.
First, you can hope that the TSA PreCheck you paid for will actually do some good, and allow you to carry your laptop or tablet in the passenger cabin. Considering that you’ve had an investigation and background check, this would make sense, which means it probably won’t happen.
You can send an inexpensive laptop to the hotel you’re going to by Federal Express or another courier service, so at least you’ll have one when you get there.
You can put your laptop in your luggage and hope for the best, but also carry a USB thumb drive in your pocket with the information and documents you need when you get there.
You can try getting the largest phone the government will allow, and resign yourself to working using your phone, at least until your eyes give out. Just make sure to carry a charger cable with you.
You can fly back from Europe via Toronto or other Canadian gateway airport where TSA rules don’t apply. If necessary, you can take the train from Toronto to the U.S.
And, of course, you can decide to simply not go. If enough people do this, it will adversely affect the economy in both Europe and the U.S., which might get the administration’s notice. Telepresence works well, and is quite effective. But you can also use Skype or another video conference application. That will have the advantage of being cheaper and you won’t have to worry about the DHS people at all.