Q&A: The laptop ban and what it means when flying from Dubai and Abu Dhabi

Couldn't a laptop with a bomb inside still pose a danger within the cargo hold?
The ticketing and check-in counters for Emirates airlines appears quiet inside the terminal on March 21, 2017 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
By Bloomberg and AP
Wed 22 Mar 2017 08:59 AM

Middle East airports and passengers are grappling with new US and British rules barring laptops and other electronic gadgets in carry-on luggage. Both governments prohibited large electronic devices in the cabins of flights headed to their countries. In announcing the rules, officials cited security reasons but didn’t supply many specifics.

Is this type of ban unusual?

Yes. And some security analysts find it baffling. The stated purpose of the US ban, which affects non-stop flights from 10 Middle Eastern airports, is to protect travellers from security threats on commercial flights. There certainly have been instances where electronic devices were used in terror attacks. The US Department of Homeland Security did not cite a specific threat when it said the ban is aimed at terror groups looking to bypass airport security, other than that it has “reason to be concerned”. Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the US House Intelligence Committee, said he’d been briefed on the situation and that the steps are “both necessary and proportional”. The UK ban is similar but applies to fewer countries.

What’s the reaction?

The Gulf hubs affected say they have high safety standards to protect fliers. Some aviation consultants, including Addison Schonland with AirInsight Inc., say they know of no credible threats involving technology. They say the ban won’t necessarily make flying any safer. Determined terrorists, for example, could fly out of unaffected airports beyond the 10 the US is naming. Or they could place a bomb in devices in checked-in luggage. That has prompted some analysts to suggest that protectionism could be at play here.

How so?

One motivation for the ban, some aviation experts say, might be to prompt business travellers to take alternative routes via European hubs to curb the growth of the big three Gulf carriers: Emirates, Etihad Airways PJSC and Qatar Airways Ltd. US airlines have long complained that those three are unfairly subsidised by their governments and have lobbied to restrict their expansion. President Donald Trump has said he plans to help US airlines compete with foreign carriers that are aided by their governments. The move also comes just weeks after Trump tried to bar citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US.

Which countries and airlines are affected?

The eight countries affected by the US ban are Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar and the UAE. The biggest carriers affected are Turkish Airlines and the three leading Gulf operators (Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways). No US carriers fly to the affected cities. The UK’s ban applies to flights originating from six countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Tunisia.

Is it temporary and will it spread to more airports?

For now, the ban is indefinite. The US has not ruled out that more airports could be added to the list, saying that as threats change, so too will the Transportation Security Administration’s requirements.

Why does this affect only nonstop flights, not those with stopovers?

Flights with stopovers on the way to the U.S. are met with additional security checks and screenings, adding an additional layer of protection. Bennet Waters of the Chertoff Group, a security consulting firm, says the affected airports may have been singled out by the government because of the procedures and equipment they use to screen carry-on bags.

Why are laptops and tablets considered more dangerous than cellphones?

The US Transportation Security Administration has not explained. But Waters says TSA and intelligence officials have probably concluded that cellphones are too small to be rigged with enough explosives to bring down an airliner.

Have laptops or electronics ever been used to attack planes?

Bombs concealed in electronics have been an airline safety concern for decades. In 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, by a bomb hidden inside a Toshiba cassette recorder and packed inside a checked suitcase in the cargo hold. All 259 people on board and 11 others on the ground were killed. More recently, a Daallo Airlines plane landed safely in Somalia last year after a bomb inside a laptop exploded in the passenger cabin and blew a hole in the fuselage. Only the suspected suicide bomber was killed.

Couldn't a laptop with a bomb inside still pose a danger within the cargo hold?

Yes. A bomb inside the cargo hold could bring a plane down, airline security experts say. But they say the scanning technology used to screen checked luggage for bombs is generally more sophisticated than the X-ray machinery used to examine carry-on luggage.

Also, separating the bomb from the bomber could make it harder to detonate it in the air. A timer would be less reliable, because it could go off on the ground if there were a flight delay, says Jeffrey Price, an aviation security expert and professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. And a bomb with a barometric pressure switch that would detonate at a certain altitude could be set off by rough handling at the airport, Price says.

Should travelers be worried about their electronics getting stolen from their checked luggage?

Yes, thieves are known to target expensive electronic equipment. Cheap luggage locks can be broken and canvas baggage can be cut into, says Anthony Roman, president of Roman & Associates, a risk management firm. He recommends using hard-shell suitcases that come with strong locks.

Why does this apply to laptops and not mobile phones?

That’s unclear. The US said it tried to balance risk with the effect on travelers and therefore has determined that smartphones will be allowed at this time. Other prohibited items include tablets, e-readers, cameras, portable DVD players, electronic game units bigger than smartphones and travel printers or scanners.

How will this affect screening and passengers?

It will probably cause check-in delays at bigger airports, some of which must screen more than 500 passengers looking to board double-decker A380 planes. Passengers with connecting flights are advised to pack large personal electronic devices in checked bags at their originating airport. For example, Etihad Airways said its US-bound passengers transiting in Abu Dhabi must place the banned devices in checked bags at the airport of origin.

When does it start?

The US said it notified airlines of the ban on March 21 at 3 am Eastern Daylight Time and gave them 96 hours to comply. That means it will take effect at 3 a.m March 25, but some airlines are enforcing it earlier.

Why now?

We don’t know. The US government fact sheet said this is based on “evaluated intelligence” showing that terrorist groups continue to target aviation, including by smuggling explosive devices in consumer products.

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