In March, the United States government ordered a ban on electronics larger than mobile phones on carry-on luggage for passengers travelling on direct flights departing from 8 countries in the Middle East to the United States. The initial countries affected were Egypt, UAE, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Morocco and Saudia Arabia. While obviously a controversial decision, the UK soon followed suit and enforced the same ban for all of the listed countries bar the UAE and Qatar. The EU, on the other hand, has so far refused to adopt the order.
So, why the ban?
The order was justified for the following reason: according to US intelligence officials, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was developing explosives fitted inside laptops or large electronic devices that could bypass scanners and metal detectors.
What have airlines done to help passengers affected by the ban?
Clearly, the ban is a huge inconvenience for business travellers who need to work on the aircraft. Airlines such as Emirates, Qatar and Turkish Airlines came to a compromise, allowing passengers to use their larger electronic devices right up to the moment of boarding at the gate. They also offered complementary Microsoft Surface tablets, Apple iPads and laptops to all business and first class passengers travelling to the US, as well as free Wifi. However, despite these efforts to minimise inconvenience, Emirates announced “a significant deterioration in the booking profiles on all of our U.S. routes” as a result of the ban, and that it was therefore reducing the number of flights serving these routes.
Most recently, news has circulated that the ban is likely to soon be extended to flights between the US and Europe. On the 8th of May, aviation analyst Alex Macheras tweeted that the ban would soon be extended, “coming into effect in a few weeks”. A meeting between EU and US official on the 17th of May in Brussels ended with an agreement to hold further talks again during the week of May 22, in Washington DC.
Apart from the inconvenience, what else is at risk?
Many officials and aviation stakeholders have expressed concern over the safety issue of flying with laptops in the cargo hold, as it increases the risk of uncontained lithium battery fires. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has similarly contested the proposal due to this risk. IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac wrote a letter to EC commissioner for transport Violeta Bulc and US Homeland Security secretary John Kelly, urging them to consider the alternative of employing short-term measures instead.
Alternative short-term measures proposed by IATA:
- Explosive trace detections at primary and secondary checkpoints
- Visual inspection of laptops and electronic devices
- Increased questioning about the purpose and the origin of the device
- Potentially requiring passengers to turn on their devices for verification
- The use of “behavioural detection” officers and dogs
- Increased training for screening employees
The IATA also estimates the expansion of the ban to the EU would affect more than 2500 flights per week. Right now, the ban already affects 350. So we can only wait and see what happens next…