TSA Bans Electronics From Ten Overseas Airports

UPDATE: March 31, 2017

ON MARCH 20th, the Transportation Security Administration suddenly announced that all electronic devices larger than a mobile phone are to be banned from the passenger cabins of all flights inbound to the United States from ten airports in the Middle East, Turkey, and Morocco. Devices like laptop computers and tablets can still be carried as checked luggage, but will not be permitted with carry-on bags. Explanations have been vague and the move has left some security experts scratching their heads. Nine airlines are affected: Royal Jordanian, Royal Air Maroc, Turkish Airlines, EgyptAir, Kuwait Airways, Saudia, Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways. No U.S. or European airlines are affected.

The Guardian sums things up better than I could, here. Of the points raised in that story, I would emphasize that the order will result in the addition of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of lithium batteries — a known fire hazard that regulators and safety experts have been working to restrict from checked luggage — to the underfloor holds aboard more than fifty U.S.-bound flights every day. The rest of it is nothing if not peculiar. As the Guardian and others have pointed out, an explosive device in checked luggage isn’t any less dangerous than one in the cabin, necessarily. Bombs hidden in checked luggage have been destroying planes for decades; see Pan Am, UTA, Air-India, Avianca, and so on.

Meanwhile, a majority of passengers flying these airlines are merely transiting through their hubs, en route to or from third countries. The rule also fails to account for passengers whose journeys might originate in, or pass through one of the ten listed airports, but who connect elsewhere before continuing to the U.S. For instance, a passenger gets on a plane in Cairo, flies to Frankfurt, and there transfers to Lufthansa or one of the American carriers for an onward flight to New York, Los Angeles, Boston, or wherever. That passenger’s laptop is legal the whole way. All a terrorist would need to do is alter his routing through any of dozens of European or Asian gateways.



 

Such obvious loopholes make us wonder how much of this move is in the interest of safety, and how much of it is political. The airlines hardest hit are Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad — the so-called “Gulf carriers,” also referred to as the “M.E.3” — whose flights to U.S. cities all are subject to the ban. The massive worldwide expansion of these carriers, which are state-owned and supported, has become increasingly controversial. Measured by international traffic, Emirates is now the biggest airline in the world, and the M.E.3’s Persian Gulf hubs in Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi, have become a global crossroads, with hundreds of routes linking Asia, Africa, and Australia with the cities of Europe and North America. U.S. airlines have been lobbying regulators and lawmakers, citing an inability to compete with these heavily subsidized giants. Only a few weeks ago, airline leaders sat down with Trump administration officials to discuss the issue and press their cause. The new rules mean that all of the Gulf carriers’ U.S.-bound passengers, including many high-end business travelers, will be forced to fly without their tablets or computers. That can’t be good for business.

The impacted carriers have been scrambling to come up with workarounds. Etihad Airways has begun handing out loaner iPads to its premium class customers. Qatar Airways has gone a step further, lending full-sized laptops. Emirates and Turkish have introduced a gateside concierge service that allows travelers to use their devices right up to the moment of departure. Computers and tablets are collected by hand just before boarding, and sequestered in a special container in the cargo hold. Importantly for passengers, this allows them to use their devices on the first leg of any trip that connects through these airlines’ hubs in Dubai and Istanbul. An Emirates passenger flying from Chennai to New York, for example, need not surrender his or her laptop when first checking in, but may keep it all the way until departure from Dubai some hours later.

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17 Responses to “TSA Bans Electronics From Ten Overseas Airports”
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  1. YD14 says:

    This move will also affect the aircraft market. The airlines of Middle East like Emirates, ethihad and qatar will choose planes like 777, 787 or a350 over a380 because of reduced passengers and therefore profit Boeing an American company in its new projects like 777x and 787-10

  2. Curt J Sampson says:

    If this sort of nonsense continues, perhaps airlines will start offering HDMI inputs on the seat-back displays and USB keyboards and trackpads to passengers. Then tiny but full-fledged computers like the Raspberry Pi Zero (or phones, with the right software) could be used for productive work on board.

  3. Jeffrey Latten says:

    Yet another example of killing a mosquito with a nuclear weapon. Knee-jerk regulation that basically accomplishes nothing for safety and everything for hindrance to busy passengers who want to put time in the air to useful work.

  4. Eric Welch says:

    Unless screening of luggage is a lot better than I suspect it is, this will place more burdens on those who screen luggage and much easier to get a bomb on a plane. To my knowledge, none of the bombs that have brought down planes have been in laptops. Lockerbie wasn’t and the Philippines’ 747 bomb was triggered by a watch.

  5. Speed says:

    The reasoning behind the ban according to CNN …

    (CNN)US intelligence and law enforcement agencies believe that ISIS and other terrorist organizations have developed innovative ways to plant explosives in electronic devices that FBI testing shows can evade some commonly used airport security screening methods, CNN has learned.

    Heightening the concern is US intelligence suggesting that terrorists have obtained sophisticated airport security equipment to test how to effectively conceal explosives in laptops and other electronic devices.
    http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/31/politics/terrorist-laptop-bombs-may-evade-security/index.html

    • Patrick says:

      That still doesn’t explain the picking of the ten airports. Neither does it address the glaringly obvious loopholes that any halfwit terrorist could exploit.

  6. Speed says:

    In a piece discussing alternatives to a laptop for getting useful work done using a phone on an airplane, Ed Bott wrote, “What’s odd to me is that all of these scenarios seemed forced and unnecessary when I tested them a few years ago. Today, thanks to new political realities, they seem depressingly relevant.”

    http://www.zdnet.com/article/laptop-banned-heres-how-to-stay-productive-in-flight/

  7. Claudio Cerasoli says:

    I wonder how anyone could ever believe that a ban impacting some foreign airlines and no US airlines is a security measure and not a protectionist scheme

  8. Kevin Brady says:

    The government seems to make decisions based on politics first however, it is possible this quote applies”never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity”

    • UncleStu says:

      “it is possible this quote applies ”never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity”

      It is also possible that this applies; “never attribute to stupidity that which can be explained by malice”.

      In this case, I think it is both malice and stupidity.

  9. Dick Waitt says:

    One difference between a “large” electronic device carried in the passenger compartment and the same device stowed as luggage is that, in the case of a suicide bomber, that device might be activated more easily if it is directly in the hands of the bomber rather than in the cargo hold.

    That said, I’m sure there are methods which might be used to remotely activate such an explosive device.

    Alternately, the check-in process might require that such a device carried on board might be powered-up to demonstrate to that it is what it is claimed to be. This should involve some sort of procedure other than showing that the screen lights up and some LEDs come on…

  10. Speed says:

    ” … many high-end business travelers, will be forced to travel without their tablets or computers. That can’t be good for business.”

    Good for book sales. Better get a few cases of Ask the Pilot and Cockpit Confidential to those airports.

  11. Joshua Meldon says:

    After reviewing the intelligence the U.K. followed suit and issued a similar directive. If this is a political conspiracy then the US was able to get the U.K. to play along- doubtful. The fire danger with lithium ion batteries is when they are not inserted into a device and the batteries short. If a laptop battery is still in the laptop, then all is OK.

    • Patrick says:

      The UK ban specifically exempts Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi from the list (the three big Gulf carrier hubs).

    • Curt J Sampson says:

      A lot of ex-owners of Samsung Note 7s would disagree with you that batteries are ok if they’re in the device.

      Without question, the safest place for a lithium-ion battery, in a device or not, is in the cabin where it’s much easier to isolate and extinguish than if it’s not accessible to the crew.

  12. Alan Dahl says:

    Etihad has responded by offering free iPads and inflight WiFi to first class passengers but of course that leaves business class and coach passengers without options. I too am flummoxed by this new rule, it certainly makes these flights less safe, not more. I can only assume it’s for the very reason you suggest, to punish Middle Eastern airlines and by extension their governments. Here’s hoping this careless rulemaking doesn’t result in the loss of an aircraft!