Laptops and Tablets on Planes: The Ban Bungle

The United States on Monday (21 March), and the United Kingdom on Tuesday (22 March), banned most electronic devices, like laptops and tablets, on all flights from several Middle East countries.

The confusion and frustration that this new ban has unleashed on passengers, and on airport-officials, is just too complicated to be put into words.

The US ban, for example, is technically related to ten airports in eight countries – Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and United Arab Emirates.

The affected foreign airlines are Royal Jordainian, Egyptair, Turkish airlines, Saudia airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Morocco, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad, along with US airlines.

The UK ban, however, applies to all direct passenger flights only from six countries – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

The affected airlines by UK ban are six UK carriers – British Airways, EasyJet, Jet2, Monarch, Thomas Cook and Thomson – and eight foreign carriers.

See the lack of uniformity? And how the passengers and airport authorities must cope?

On top of that, we hear that France is also considering a ban but has not taken a decision yet. Netherlands is saying: “At the moment we don’t see reasons to introduce similar measures.”

Belgium said it would not introduce a ban without a decision from the ‘European Aviation Safety Agency’. Australia said it would monitor the new arrangement but was not at present planning to follow suit.

So, just imagine the situation if different countries come up with different policies on travel-safety!

Anyway, why this ban now? Was it a right decision? And could it have been better planned and managed?

These are the things I wish to address briefly.

To know why the ban came into place, and whether it was a good decision, we must look at the reasons behind it.

According to a report in ‘The Guardian’ on Sunday, 26 March, the ban “was partly prompted by a previously undisclosed plot involving explosives hidden in a fake iPad”.

It had  also reported on 8 February 2016 that, “Video footage analysed as part of Somalia’s investigation into an explosion that blew a hole in a passenger plane shows two men handing what looks like a laptop to the suspected bomber after he passed through security”.

So, the rationale of US homeland security that terrorists are becoming more and more ‘innovative’ cannot be ruled out.

In fact, considering the fact that small and powerful remote devices are nowadays connected on Wi-Fi and Internet, who knows, even a ‘mobile’ phone could be used for destructive purposes like for remote detonation.

However, I find it strange that despite high-level intelligence sharing between US and UK, the travel bans are different by both countries.

For example US list has Qatar and the UAE among the countries from where passengers cannot board the cabins with large electronic devices. These two countries are not on the UK list.  

If UK assesses Qatar and UAE as having high levels of airport security, why is US not assessing the airports in the same way?

Some commentators are saying that this ban is a cunning plot, designed to destroy the Middle East airline industry, which has been doing very well of late. But that is far-fetched and can’t be true because this ban is also frustrating the US and UK airlines operating from Middle Eastern countries.

Could this ban have been better planned and managed?

Yes. I feel it could have been handled a lot better. When the decision affects millions of passengers, from several airlines, from airports of many countries, the inconvenience that this ban would cause must also be taken into account.

It is 2017. Smart phones, laptops, and tablets are not luxury items anymore. They are essential communication devices which people carry into the cabin, as cabin baggage. Business professionals, journalists, academics, civil servants, research scholars and students use airport lobbies and air-travel-time to work on important projects.

If these passengers had known about the ban in advance, they would have been better prepared.  They wouldn’t be straining the airports. At least a week’s notice would have lessened the strain on airports and passengers.

For our own safety, we are all now willing to wait in long queues at airport terminals, to get our baggage screened and to have our bodies frisked; which is good.

Like body-screening equipment, maybe there is a need for hi-tech systems which can identify and detect fake electronic products that could endanger the travellers.

Meanwhile, however, let us at least use the travel-time to improve our ‘social skills’ instead of our ‘social media skills’ on these banned devices.