Air travel is already a miserable and undignified experience, as United Airlines recently made painfully clear. Be prepared for another indignity: The White House is considering new rules that will prevent passengers from carrying laptops aboard flights from London and several European cities to the U.S. And such a proposal wouldn’t just inconvenience customers; it has the potential to devastate the airline industry by driving away customers and leading to a sharp drop-off in bookings and profits.
A description of the new proposal was buried in all the coverage of President Trump’s latest controversy–divulging classified intelligence to Russian officials about an ISIS plot to develop bombs that could be hidden in laptops and iPads. The proposed security measure vastly expands the ban imposed by the Department of Homeland Security in March on passengers from 10 predominantly Muslim countries from carrying devices larger than a cellphone on inbound flights to the U.S. That was vigorously opposed on civil rights grounds but this new proposal would likely cause chaos at airports, say travel experts.
The laptop ban is currently being discussed by aviation authorities in both the U.S. and the E.U. As of right now, they have decided not to proceed with it. One unnamed official told the Associated Press that the proposal is “off the table.” But given how volatile the White House has been in recent months, it’s unclear whether it is really being nixed or what other measures might be put in place to protect passengers. More talks are scheduled for next week in Washington, D.C.
“If this ban is expanded, I’m concerned that we are in for a summer of international travel hell,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and principal at Atmosphere Research, writes in an email. “Airports will become zoos. The additional security screening time may require passengers to arrive at airports four or more hours in advance of flights.”
As anyone who’s traveled on a plane since 9/11 knows, boarding a flight has become increasingly laborious in recent years due to all the new security measures adopted after the latest terrorist threat. At most American airports, boarding a flight now involves taking off your shoes in the security line, going through a body scanning machine, and throwing out liquids in containers larger than 3.4 ounces. The ban would add an additional nuisance to the the two-thirds of transatlantic passengers who travel with an electronic device larger than a cell phone. Clive Irving writing in The Daily Beast, says this ban would effectively be a win for terrorists because they would be, “inflicting the most serious disruption of air travel since the 9/11 attacks.”
It’s also worth noting that transferring electronics into the plane’s cargo compartment is also unsafe, since lithium ion batteries are known to occasionally catch fire when they are damaged or short-circuit. A concentration of these batteries will only increase the ferocity of a fire. Some critics point out that the danger of a battery blaze might outweigh the dangers posed by potential terrorists.
For airlines, the ban could be financially devastating. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said that the ban would cost more than $1 billion to implement, when you add up lost productivity and travel delays. And airlines are worried that many travelers will simply cancel their plans altogether or find alternative means to get to their destination.
“An expanded electronics ban would disproportionately affect airlines’ most profitable customers–business travelers,” Harteveldt continues. “Within this group, three high-value, high-volume customer groups–investment banking, consulting, and technology professionals–are likely to be affected. These travelers are often required to keep their company-issued electronics with them on a plane, and are told not to check laptops or other electronics. As a result, these travelers may cancel trips or their companies may explore chartering aircraft.”
Alexandre de Juniac, the head of IATA, has suggested to aviation officials in an open letter that there might be better ways of dealing with this impending threat. For instance, airports could use screening devices that detect traces of explosives in laptops or train security staff to detect unusual behavior. “The current situation is not acceptable,” de Juniac says. “We must find a better way. And governments must act quickly.”