Help! They Took Away My Laptop!

Last week coming home from Tbilisi, in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, I was flying Turkish Air and was confronted at the check-in line with a small sign that said “all laptops and tablets,and large phones must be stored in checked baggage.”

These new regulations from Homeland Security, which went into effect March 21, cover inbound flights from ten airports in the Middle East.

The ban does not affect flights leaving the United States, nor does it affect flights from Europe, Asia, or South America to the United States.

Since I had a lot of work to do during my twenty-hour trip home – including an 11-hour flight from Istanbul to New York – I was in somewhat of a panic.

I did not even have any books to read since they were all stored on my Ipad. I frantically searched the Tbilisi airport for any English language reading material, but to no avail.

Since I had a few hours to wait for my first domestic flight, I chose to keep my laptop and Ipad with me until the last minute. Also I didn’t want to risk having them stolen out of my suitcase.

In Istanbul, I rushed to my Turkish Air gate (Turkish Air was voted the best airline in Europe five years in a row) and saw a long line of people getting their passports checked.

Uh oh, I thought. Is there going to be be a delay?

After showing our passports, passengers were herded into two lines, one for men and one for women, where all carry-on bags were opened and searched. We were instructed to take out all electronic equipment, including laptops, tablets, large phones and cameras.

We were all subjected to a thorough pat-down and directed to another line where we handed our laptops and tablets to a security officer who wrapped them in bubble pack. The officer gave us each a claim ticket and put our devices into a large suitcase with other laptops.

As I had nothing to read on the plane, I took an extended nap and arrived fairly fresh at JFK airport. During the flight airline offered business class travelers another laptop and an internet code, but, by that time, I was asleep.

At the airport I picked up my checked bag I got in another line -- an electronics retrieval line -- and waited for my laptop and tablet. I would later learn that there is much controversy about this electronics ban.

Gary Leff from the blog View from the Wing says that the electronics ban is either a stupid or an “evil genius” way to address a possibly real problem.

He maintains that if there were an imminent threat, the ban would have to apply to all flights to the United States. The ban only forces terrorists to come up with more roundabout itineraries. It doesn't take much creativity for terrorists originating in Dubai to connect elsewhere in Europe, London, Paris or even Brazil, and carry deadly electronics onto a flight to the United States.

Leff points out that the largest U.S. airlines have been lobbying for government protection from Middle East competitors like Etihad, Qatar, and Emirates. This ostensible security policy may give them what they were after all along, hobbling competition from the Gulf and doing it under the cover of security. Their angle is economic.

In fact, the ban may backfire because it is now more likely that terrorists will target U.S. carriers, via indirect flights. One question is how carrying electronics in the cargo hold is safer than the passenger area. PanAm 103 was brought down by a bomb in the cargo area. It is not hard to trigger a bomb in the cargo hold, with a smartphone in the passenger cabin, or with a simple timer calibrated to altitude.

If the United States were serious about security, logically, we should ban laptops on all flights from all over the world. Even on domestic flights from New York to Boston. Homeland Security officials have told European authorities that a ban from Europe is already in the works.

Any extension of the ban will impact such as airlines as United, Delta, American Airlines, Lufthansa, British Airways and Air France-KLM.

The economic impact will be devastating. There are nearly 4,000 weekly flights operating between European airports and the United States.

ASTA, the travel agent association, is concerned about the balance the country needs to strike between legitimate threats and the negative impact on the travel industry that could scare travelers or impinge on their desire to travel.

The head of the world airline association IATA has called for the ban’s end.

Expect more laptops to be stolen and fewer people to travel because of inconvenience and lost productivity.

If there is a real threat from laptop bombs it should apply to all flights from Europe, Asia and elsewhere and perhaps even domestically.

It seems almost unthinkable: a flight from New York to Boston where you cannot carry on your laptop or your tablet or Kindle.

There may be a real danger from laptop bombs. Apparently terrorists have been actively working on the possibility for many years.

But it is tempting for politicians to overreact to the dangers of terrorism while underestimating the dangers of auto accidents and medical malpractice and lack of medical care. Certain risks are inherent in daily living and can never be totally avoided.

The question is how many of our freedoms are we willing to give away? Travelers can never be totally safe. And might there be another, simpler way of screening laptops, and passengers, to make sure that they’re not deadly.

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