A new security protocol banning most electronic items, except cellphones, from airplane cabins on U.S.-bound flights from 10 airports in the Middle East and Africa has raised questions about airline safety, national security, and whether a limited ban can be effective.
Travel groups and industry experts say the regulation, announced Tuesday, will hurt business travel, and raises a fire-safety concern in putting the electronic devices containing lithium-ion batteries in the cargo hold on planes.
“Few aviation experts would suggest that it is prudent to load an aircraft hold with hundreds of electronics with lithium batteries, some of which could be overcharged or damaged,” said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor. “If a battery catches fire in an aircraft cabin, as with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, it can be dealt with promptly. A fire in the hold a thousand miles out in the Atlantic Ocean is another matter.”
The measure requires passengers to put laptops, tablets, portable DVD players, and cameras in checked baggage when flying from airports in eight Muslim-majority nations. The regulation will likely cause business travelers, who rely on laptops during long flights and do not want to risk theft from checked luggage, to reroute trips through other airports where the ban is not in effect, travel experts say.
“The productivity hit on business travelers and their organizations will be significant, if not intolerable,” Mitchell said. "Of deeper concern will be trade secrets and other sensitive and valuable information that are stored on many business travelers' laptops that could be copied or stolen."
Putting a bomb in checked luggage could make it harder to detonate because it may require human interaction. Others say an explosive device in the cargo hold could be triggered by a variety of mechanisms, including a mobile phone in the passenger cabin.
Some question how effective a ban that covers only a few airlines in a few countries will be. Terrorists determined on blowing up a plane can connect to the United States from countries outside the ban.
“The ban only applies to the last point of departure to the U.S.,” said Mitchell. “Consequently, a laptop-carrying passenger could board an Air France flight at Istanbul and connect in Paris on Delta Air Lines to New York.”
The new regulation applies to U.S.-bound nonstop flights in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. It affects nine foreign air carriers that have 50 daily nonstop flights to the United States. No U.S. airlines are effected because none fly nonstop from the selected airports.
Britain announced a similar security rule Tuesday, but included different airports.
Long term, European airlines could benefit from the partial ban, as travelers to Africa, India, or Southeast Asia connect through Frankfurt, Paris, or London, instead of Doha, Abu Dhabi, or Dubai. Qatar Airways operates a direct daily flight between Philadelphia and Doha, the Qatari capital.
Airline analyst Jamie Baker at J.P. Morgan Chase said in a client note the electronics ban "may materially alter business flows" and "could prove a long-term deterrent to business travel." Some investment banks and tech companies forbid employees from checking laptops, he said.
Leisure travel, especially in Europe, may be “curbed by fears of heightened terrorism risk on the back of this ban," Baker wrote.
Travel groups are concerned the policy could hurt global business and tourism, which took a hit after President Trump’s first executive order limiting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
U.S. bookings to the Middle East in the four weeks after Trump’s ban in January were down 27 percent, according to ForwardKeys, a travel research firm. “It has also affected travel in the opposite direction,” said ForwardKeys CEO Olivier Jager.