The travel and aviation industries and US-destined passengers should monitor closely the US Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) rules regarding a ban on carry-on laptops as the busy summer travel season begins. In March, DHS banned laptops and other similar personal electronic devices (ie, tablets) on US-bound flights from 10 airports in the Middle East.1 DHS recently reported that it is considering expanding the ban, but absent further threat information, will not extend the ban to flights from Europe to the United States. If implemented, travelers and the aviation industry will need to quickly adjust travel habits, notifications, and operations, and likely engage DHS to implement the appropriate response. While airlines are quickly exploring alternative options, including carrier-supplied laptops in business class and enhanced in-flight entertainment (IFE) options, the economic and productivity impact of an extension of the laptop ban will be significant.

Potential Expansion of the Laptop Ban 

DHS, acting through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), has broad authority to respond to aviation threats and emergencies, including the imposition of security requirements at foreign airports that serve airlines with flights to the United States. Implemented through airline- and airport-required security programs, TSA typically implements new security measures to counter a specific civil aviation threat or to respond to a threat assessment through "Security Directives," which often involve a notice-and-comment process. Yet, as with the current laptop ban, TSA may also take immediate action through an "emergency amendment" when it finds the Security Directive process to be contrary to the public interest—usually to counter a specific, credible, and imminent threat.

The current laptop Security Directive and emergency amendments were prompted by "evaluated intelligence" that "terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items." On 21 December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland with no survivors. Investigators there attributed the act of sabotage to an unaccompanied bag of a Libyan intelligence agent who had placed plastic explosives inside a Toshiba cassette recorder. Intelligence officials apparently are convinced that ISIS and other terrorist groups have become more sophisticated in their bomb-making skills, utilizing much smaller electrical items like laptops.

The restricted items on flights to the United States included laptop computers, tablets, cameras, travel printers and games bigger than a phone. The restrictions would not apply to aircraft crews. The ban applies only to flights on foreign carriers. It does not directly affect American-operated airlines, since they do not fly directly to the United States from the 10 designated airports in eight countries: Amman, Jordan; Cairo; Istanbul; Jeddah and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia; Kuwait City; Casablanca, Morocco; Doha, Qatar; and Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The impacted foreign airlines had 96 hours to implement the indefinite ban. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently reported that while international travel continues to report robust growth in excess of 10%, travel between the US and Middle East is down 2.8%–the first reported drop in seven years.

Currently, US domestic passengers are required to remove laptops from carry-on bags to facilitate inspection of the laptop and the remaining contents of the bag. TSA officers may also ask passengers to power-up devices and will disallow powerless devices. TSA recently adopted enhanced pat-down procedures for passengers.

DHS Secretary Kelly recently suggested that they could extend the ban to all US-bound flights.2 DHS has been engaged in discussions with European security authorities, however, and most recently agreed that the ban would not be extended to flights to the United States from Europe in consideration further screening at airports. Growing concerns exist about the unintended consequences of a laptop ban, including the danger of storing large numbers of devices with lithium batteries in carrier cargo holds.3 Ultimately, implementation and scope of an expansion to other airports around the world remains uncertain at this time. And, DHS may reconsider its agreement with the European authorities if the threat intelligence changes.

Comments 

Because DHS does not publicize its final plans until implementation, it is unclear whether an expansion will occur or the scope of such expansion. It is also unclear whether DHS is considering alternative security measures, such as requiring passengers to power-up laptops, similar to its security practice in the United States.

If the carry-on ban is expanded, the breadth of the response will be vast, particularly if the ban is extended globally—

  • Any covered foreign airport serving US-bound flights will need to impose new screening procedures, potentially impacting the efficiency of the security screening;
  • Airlines and travel agents should immediately inform their customers to expect further scrutiny and delays;
  • Passengers should plan on longer security screening and potentially take the time to check luggage or find other means to send their carry-on laptops to their destination;
  • DHS will need to assess the implementation of the ban at foreign airports;
  • Airlines, hotels, and other travel-related industries may consider accommodating travelers requests to facilitate carriage or shipment of the laptops, including plane-side check-in for connecting passengers; and
  • Extension of the ban by other security agencies and/or airports to other flights.

Undoubtedly, the greatest impact will be business travelers unable to work during the long international flights bound for the United States. Such passengers may forgo the unproductive period for solutions that will not involve time spent on covered flights. Others, particularly with connecting flights, may re-route travel through airports that are not covered by the ban.

An issue raised by the European security authorities, the ban also has safety implications, particularly the transportation of lithium ion batteries that typically power laptops and increase the risk of on-board fires. Currently, lithium ion batteries contained in laptops may be contained in carry-on or checked luggage. However, spare batteries are not permitted in checked baggage. Passengers that decide to ship their laptops or tablets should also be aware that shipments of lithium ion batteries requires special handling and marking.

Those businesses and travelers impacted by the ban should consider developing a response plan, particularly businesses that need to keep their customers informed of the changes. Additionally, aviation-related businesses should consider how to best engage DHS to consider options, responses, and alternative measures to extending the ban.