The Department of Homeland Security’s ban on large electronics is now officially in effect.
The ban, which was announced on Tuesday, forbids passengers from bringing any electronic devices larger than a cell phone into the cabin of certain flights to the US.
Airlines were scrambling for answers to the operational nightmare created by the ban, after getting just 96 hours to comply or risk losing their licence to fly into the US.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the ban’s motives, its effectiveness at deterring a terrorist attack, the huge loopholes left open by the Trump administration, and how airlines are expected to comply with the ban and a Federal Aviation Administration prohibition against checking lithium-ion battery devices.
Here’s what we know so far.
What’s the ban?
The ban requires passengers to place all electronic items larger than a cell phone in their checked luggage so the devices cannot be accessed in flight. This includes laptops, tablets, e-readers, portable DVD players, gaming devices larger than a smartphone, and travel-size printers and scanners. However, necessary medical devices are exempt.
The new policy covers only non-stop flights to the US coming from one of 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa — including a few of the busiest transit hubs in the world: Istanbul, Turkey and Dubai in the UAE.
Flights from the US to these destinations will not be affected.
As a result, a total of nine airlines, including industry heavyweights such as Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways, and Turkish Airlines, will have to deal with the consequences of the ban.
But not all flights from these airlines into the US will be affected by the ban.
For instance, Emirates offers flights to New York’s JFK International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey that stop in Milan, Italy and Athens, Greece . On Thursday, Emirates confirmed that passengers on these flights will be permitted to have their laptops and other electronic devices with them in the cabin.
In addition, no flights operated by US or European airlines will be affected directly by the ban because none offer non-stop service to the US from that region of the world. However, several US carriers including American, United, JetBlue, and Alaska could see their business take a hit. This is because airlines such as Qatar, Turkish, and Emirates feed passengers directly into their respective domestic networks.
How will the ban work?
The ban calls for all large electronic devices to be packed with checked luggage at each passenger’s point of origin. This means that those transiting through the affected airports will be without their devices from the onset of their trip. For instance, if you are travelling from Mumbai, India to Atlanta, GA via Doha, Qatar, your laptop will have to be checked in Mumbai even though it’s not one of the airports on the banned list.
However, those flying with Emirates through Dubai will have the benefit of a work-around that will allow passengers to have access to their laptops until it’s time to board their flights. For passengers, Emirates’ complimentary laptop handling service will allow them to have access to their devices during the first leg of their journey along with their layover in Dubai.
Passengers who use the service will be required to declare their large electronic devices to security agents before boarding US-bound flights. The devices would then be packed in secure boxes and stored in the aircraft’s cargo hold. The boxes would be returned to the travellers once they reached the US.
Other airlines such as Qatar Airways have indicated they will implement extra security measures to ensure the security of the devices. Although none have yet to clarify what those measure are.
According to US officials, there’s no set date for the end of the ban and its need will be periodically reviewed.
Why the ban?
According to senior administration officials, the decision to implement these security measures is a result of intelligence showing a risk for terrorist activity involving commercial aviation.
“Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items,” an official said on Monday.
Whatever this intelligence consists of, it was substantial enough for the national-security apparatus to act.
But confusing matters was that the UK issued a similar ban Tuesday but excluded four airports — Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Doha, Qatar, and Casablanca, Morocco — featured in the US ban.
In addition, several aviation industry analysts who have spoken with Business Insider question whether a ban of this type would even be effective in countering a terrorist attack. Doha, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi are major international transit hubs with extensive multilayered security procedures. US-bound flights are also screened in dedicated facilities using well-trained security professionals who often have experience in law enforcement or the military.
In fact, Abu Dhabi International Airport is equipped with a US Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance facility where passengers and bags headed for the US are screened by US customs officials.
Also, areas of world known to be hotbeds for terrorist activity have been left off the list banned countries. For example, Pakistan International Airlines’ flight from Lahore to JFK International by way of Manchester, England is not covered by the ban. Which means, it’s possible for terrorists to simply bypass the banned airports and reach the US through any number of European transit hubs.
The lithium battery problem
The electronics ban will have a few unintended side effects. One of the most serious is the large number of lithium-ion batteries in the cargo hold of an airliner.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, it’s behaviour with potentially catastrophic consequences.
“FAA battery fire testing has highlighted the potential risk of a catastrophic aircraft loss due to damage resulting from a lithium battery fire or explosion,” the agency wrote in an alert in February. “Current cargo fire suppression systems cannot effectively control a lithium battery fire.”
Administration officials told journalists on Monday that they were working with the FAA to maintain a safe flying environment, but they did not state specifics. Business Insider asked DHS for specifics on Tuesday but has not yet heard back from officials.
This is particularly concerning for Michael Mo, the cofounder and CEO of KULR Technologies, a company that specialises in thermal-management systems for batteries.
“Lithium-ion batteries are inherently volatile. It’s statistics. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when one of these things blow,” Mo told Business Insider in an interview. “So when that happens, it’s better to have humans nearby to react and put out the fire.”
According to Mo, the only saving grace here is that spare batteries and power banks are still prohibited. Which means only batteries fitted inside devices will be stored with cargo. Even though it’s not perfectly safe, these batteries tend to be more stable and less likely to combust.
With the laptop ban still in its infancy, more details will likely emerge in the near future. Stay tuned.
If you’re currently a business traveller affected by the US laptop ban, you can share your story with [email protected]