We still don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with the new laptop/electronics ban set to go into effect for flights departing Europe and arriving in the US but we have somewhat of an idea of what’s going on. In case you haven’t been keeping track, here’s a quick refresher.
In March 2017, both the US and the UK implemented bans for all large electronics which included:
- Portable DVD players
- Electronic game units larger than a smartphone
- Travel printers/scanners
These bans affected several Middle Eastern and Northern Africa countries. Curiously, the US applied the ban to Qatar, Emirates, and Etihad, while the UK exempted them. This made many question the motives behind the ban and many saw this as a form of protectionism.
About a month later, rumors started swirling about the ban going into effect for European countries and this past week, we heard from reliable sources that the ban was imminent.
However, European countries (along with airlines) have pushed back on implementing this ban. They’ve argued that its unsafe to hold so many lithium batteries in the cargo hold where they might be susceptible to igniting and there will nobody there to put out the fire. Even aviation organizations are in agreement with this concern.
It seems like Homeland Security is at least listening to the EU since they’ve been discussing these issues over the phone and the EU has invited U.S. officials to Brussels next week in order “to jointly assess the potential risks and review future measures.”
So that’s the good news. There’s some exchange happening and the US DHS appears to be listening . However, sources indicate that the decision to implement the ban to flights from Europe has already been made and the airlines are “just waiting on the order.” So it seems like it’s just a matter of when it’s going to happen and not if it’s going to happen. The fact that Delta even put out a sign stating a new ban was going into effect on May 12th is telling, as well.
As for the official word, the Department of Homeland Security is still offering generic responses about the ban:
“No final decisions have been made on expanding the restriction on large electronic devices in aircraft cabins; however, it is under consideration. DHS continues to evaluate the threat environment and will make changes when necessary to keep air travelers safe.”
Although one can always hope that discussions with the EU lead to an alternative outcome, I’m fully expecting for this ban to be officially announced within the next week or two. It might come with some limited exceptions or be less encompassing as the ban targeted towards the Middle East, but I think it’s going to be in place soon.
Why are they putting this ban in place?
Multiple sources reported that intelligence is showing that terrorists are continuing to target airlines flying to the United States. The Washing Post previously stated that “[a]n unidentified person familiar with the issue has told The Washington Post that officials have long been worried by a Syrian terrorist group that is trying to build bombs inside electronic devices that are hard to detect.”
But The New York Times has stated that “the Trump administration maintained that the new restrictions did not signal a credible, specific threat of an imminent attack.”
I don’t doubt at all that intelligence shows there’s a credible threat from terrorists that they will use laptops as explosives. And as I’ve reiterated before, I’m not a counter-terrorism expert and I’m not privy to discussions on national security with government officials, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.
However, the efficacy of this policy seems highly questionable for a number of reasons, including:
- A terrorist could still bring these laptop bombs on to an aircraft from another country or simply enter the US and then try their luck with getting through TSA since TSA had up to a 95% failure rate for detecting weapons and fake bombs.
- Bombs can still go off in the cargo hold
- The risk of fires in the hold due to lithium batteries
The ban does seem to restrict or limit a terrorist’s ability to bring about an attack, but I don’t think it’s enough to eliminate the threat from a more “determined” terrorist. In the end, I think this is more of a security screening issue and would love to see new policies for screening laptops instead of an all-out ban. However, for the time being, that doesn’t seem likely.
Hopefully, I’ll be surprised and something positive will come out of the discussions with the EU next week, but I remain pessimistic about this.