(Bloomberg) -- Bring a book.
The trans-Atlantic flight could soon become a gadget-free zone if U.S. officials press forward with a security ban on laptop computers and other larger electronic devices on airline flights from Europe.
Carriers are bracing for operational chaos at European airports after the Department of Homeland Security said last week it might expand to Europe a ban imposed in March on U.S.-bound flights from 10 Middle Eastern airports. The new security protocol could mean longer security lines, heightened delays, boarding gate confusion, and yet more hassles for fliers.
“I think it’s going to be extremely chaotic,” said Rich Roth, executive director of CTI Consulting, a security firm that focuses on aviation. He predicts that airlines, airports, and European officials will press the DHS to review its analysis of the trans-Atlantic threat, hoping for a more lenient strategy than the currently envisioned ban.
Corporations and their travel managers are up in arms about the proposed electronics ban, said Greg Raiff, chief executive of New Hampshire-based charter operator Private Jet Services.
“Picture a technology firm moving employees from Europe to the U.S and telling the developers in those firms they can’t use laptops on airplanes,” Raiff said. “I think you’re looking at a substantial uproar from the business community over this.”
While companies won’t abandon trans-Atlantic trips, an electronics ban may dampen corporate travel when combined with other recent regulations that have made traveling more onerous, said Michael McCormick, executive director of the Global Business Travel Association. When faced with having to part with their computers—potentially putting sensitive corporate information at risk—some companies may tell employees to leave their computers at home.
“I think business travelers would be far more willing to accept a far more rigorous screening at the airport, rather than having to part with their tools when they travel,” McCormick said.
The threat of laptop loss—be it theft, damage, or misplacement as checked luggage—is likely to make some companies consider whether some meetings can be conducted via Skype or other virtual methods, said Andrew Coggins, a management professor at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business. “People don’t want to let their laptops go,” he said.
That may be bad news for airlines who count heavily on business travel for profitability.
This prospect, and the possibility of summer airport havoc, mobilized airlines last week to try to minimize the impact of any broader ban. It also prompted European Union officials to invite their U.S. counterparts to Brussels this week for a meeting about the underlying security threat of laptop-borne explosives being used by the Trump administration and others to justify it. EU officials told U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on Friday that any terror threats affect both continents and require a coordinated response.
David Lapan, a spokesman for DHS, said in an email that “as no decision has been made, it is premature to discuss what additional restrictions might, or might not, be.”
The U.K. has imposed a similar ban, but on fewer airports. Canadian officials don’t ban cabin electronics on flights to Canada. The nation’s aviation regulator, Transport Canada, isn’t considering any new aviation security measures, agency spokeswoman Marie-Anyk Côté said.
The current U.S. approach on the proposal—flights to America pose a threat but not the reverse—implies that the Trump administration considers U.S. airport security superior to that of European or Middle Eastern nations. While security coordination between U.S. and European officials could lead to a policy affecting all trans-Atlantic flights, another outcome might be a unilateral U.S. electronics ban followed by the same EU decision affecting flights from America.
Either way, U.S. carriers and airports are grappling with how to comply with an expanded ban. The questions are myriad:
- Would airlines require passengers to pack the devices in their checked luggage for storage in the cargo hold?
- Would it be easier to collect such devices at airport gates and then load them into a single container in the cargo? How would individual laptop and other devices be tracked and returned to their owners?
- How would connecting passengers relinquish their devices in Europe, say, if they are traveling from Accra to Atlanta via Amsterdam, and using a laptop on the first flight but not the second?
- Are U.S. airports equipped to handle additional screening volumes given that they already screen incoming international baggage, plus connecting bags?
- Would travelers’ bags be delayed upon arrival from Europe? If so, by how long?
And if answering those questions isn’t enough to generate a migraine, an expanded ban raises a well-documented safety risk that probably will.
Flying mountains of electronic devices with lithium-ion batteries in airline cargo holds presents a risk of fire. Memphis, Tennessee-based FedEx Corp. and Atlanta-based United Parcel Service Inc. consider commercial shipments of these batteries to be hazardous materials and require customers to declare them.
Investigators examined the role of lithium-ion batteries in two large fires that caused the crashes of Boeing 747 cargo planes in 2010 and 2011. A UPS flight to Germany was unable to return to Dubai in September 2010 after a large fire erupted in the cargo hold shortly after takeoff; authorities were unable to determine what caused the fire but focused on the importance of international regulations aimed at ensuring safe transport of such batteries. The other fire that placed attention on lithium ion batteries was the July 2011 crash of an Asiana 747 cargo plane which caught fire on a flight to Shanghai and crashed into the sea as it attempted to land on a Korean island. As in the UPS crash, investigators didn’t determine the cause of the fire in its cargo hold, which included a variety of flammable liquids, paint, lithium-ion batteries, phones and other electronics materials.
Last year, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization prohibited cargo shipments of lithium-ion batteries aboard passenger aircraft. Pilots unions and others had pressed for the ban, given the fires, and some have questioned whether even smaller consumer devices powered by the same batteries should also be allowed in checked luggage.
Smelling smoke and fighting fires in the cabin is easier than finding one in the airplane cargo hold, and any U.S. decision on expanding the laptop ban should consider the battery implications, said Robert Mann, an aviation consultant in New York and a former executive at four U.S. airlines.
“Given passengers cannot be presumed to know how to properly pack spare and in-use batteries and devices, this proposed order has very serious safety implications for EVERY flight on which it is imposed,” he wrote in an email.
In terms of reducing airport hassles, airlines have raised at least two ideas with U.S. officials: Performing explosives trace detection on every item brought into the airline cabin and installing smaller CT scanners at some airport gates. This type of scan is used on checked luggage but not at passenger checkpoints.
“Airlines may wish they didn’t suggest those measures” given the technology cost, processing times, and the likelihood of more missed connections and late departures, Mann said. “A Hobson’s choice, for sure.”
A device would need to contain at least eight ounces of explosive material to cause damage, and newer airline designs can withstand the impacts of as much as 1 pound, said Roth, a former U.S. Secret Service agent. Larger laptops could accommodate that much material but most smaller tablets and smartphones cannot, he said.
“I just don’t know where they’re coming from in the risk assessment of something as small as an iPad,” Roth said. “It ain’t going to do much.”
U.S. airlines are resigned that a broadened ban on electronics will occur at some point, one industry official told Bloomberg News on Friday. The person wasn’t authorized to speak about the airlines’ talks with government and asked not to be identified.
Yet if airports see operational chaos, passengers shriek on both continents, and airlines suffer huge costs—especially during the peak summer travel season—it’s unclear whether such a ban would endure.
“My opinion is [DHS] may pull the trigger and make it happen but it won’t last for more than a week,” Roth said. The reason? “Blowback.”