The Evil Genius Laptop Ban Put on Hold for Now

The incredibly stupid laptop ban on flights coming from Europe was put “on hold,” Politico reported on Tuesday afternoon. The article quoted a European official as saying, “Both sides have agreed to intensify technical talks and try and find a common solution.”

The extended ban on all inbound flights from overseas would have come in the wake of a surprise ban by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) two months earlier, targeting only direct flights from ten Middle Eastern airports.

Any extension of the ban would have impacted such airlines as United, Delta, American, Lufthansa, British Airways and Air France-KLM.

The economic consequences would have been devastating. Economic experts said that extending the ban to European flights might cost the airline industry and business up to a billion dollars per year. There are nearly 4,000 weekly flights operating between European airports and the United States.

Fortunately, saner heads prevailed for both economic and safety reasons, at least for the time being, according to European sources. But DHS Secretary John Kelly said the expansion is “still on the table.”

The laptop ban never made any sense for three very good reasons:

First, it was never explained how carrying electronics in the cargo hold is any 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 from the passenger cabin, or with a simple timer calibrated to altitude.

Second, the earlier ban from Middle East countries only forced terrorists to come up with more roundabout itineraries. It wouldn’t take much planning for terrorists originating in Dubai to connect elsewhere in Europe, London, Paris, Brazil, or even Hong Kong, and carry deadly electronics onto a flight to the United States.

Third, putting laptops in the cargo hold also runs the increased risks of exploding lithium-ion batteries which have been known to overheat, especially when several hundred of them are stored together.

The overwhelming unanswered question is: logically, if there is an imminent threat, shouldn’t laptops be banned on all flights from anywhere?

But a total ban 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 years. But how many of our freedoms are we willing to give away? Travelers can never be totally safe. And surely there might be another, simpler way of screening laptops, and passengers at the gate, to make sure that they’re not deadly.

Gary Leff from the blog View from the Wing said a few weeks ago that the electronics ban is an “evil genius” way to address a possibly real problem.

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 so under the cover of security. Their angle is economic.

Last month I experienced the inconveniences of the laptop ban coming from Tbilisi, in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. I was flying Turkish Air (Turkish Air was voted the best airline in Europe five years in a row), and was confronted at the check-in line with a sign that said “all laptops, tablets and large phones must be stored in checked baggage.”

Since I had a lot of work to do during my 24-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 flight, I chose to keep my laptop and Ipad with me until the last minute, and for the later flights. Also, I didn’t want to risk having them damaged or stolen out of my suitcase.

In Istanbul, I rushed to my Turkish Air gate, after going through TSA-type airport security, 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 my passport, 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.

Then 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. This increased security added about twenty-five minutes to our departure time.

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

At the airport I picked up my checked bag and got in another line -- an electronics retrieval line -- and waited for my laptop and tablet.

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.

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

This is an update on an earlier post on the laptop ban.

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