Ban Laptops From Airline Cabins?

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What started out two weeks ago as, if not a trial balloon, perhaps a rumor, may be about to happen. Several news outlets have reported that the U.S. wants to expand a policy to ban any electronic device larger than a cellphone from airline cabins on flights to the U.S. originating in Europe.

Recall that this very ban was put into place in March, but it was limited to about 50 flights a day from 10 cities, mostly in the Middle East. The wider ban would apply to European cities as well, although no details of its implementation date have been announced. The Department of Homeland Security said the new ban isn't in response to a specific threat, but to a believed new capability among terrorist organizations.

Rather than trot out the predictable snide remark about security theatre, I will instead ask a more sincere question: What is the threat matrix here? How significant is this threat? Banning laptops is a fairly big deal because so many business travelers returning from Europe use the plodding nine or 10-hour flight into headwinds to catch up on work they missed during their trips. I know because I am one of them and I will be traveling in Europe next month.

There's a tradeoff, of course. How much additional safety is achieved by inconveniencing business travelers and concentrating all those LiPo batteries in the cargo holds of 400 airliners a day? Under current guidelines for domestic flights, you can be fined for checking baggage with batteries, which is why when I board an airliner, my roll-aboard is stuffed full of all the camera batteries I'm not supposed to check, plus a laptop, a cellphone and an iPad.

The thinking for this policy is sound. You can at least access LiPo batteries in your carry-on and they are less likely to get manhandled to the point of shorting the internals, a leading cause of lithium ion battery fires. To be sure, these have occurred in airline cabins, but they have proved manageable. Surrounded by other flammables and despite baggage compartment fire suppression systems, I'm less sanguine about batteries I can't see cooking off in checked baggage.

DHS argues that even laptops or devices with explosives concealed inside are less threatening than they would be in a cabin because it takes more explosive energy to breech a baggage container and cause significant enough damage to bring down an airplane. Also, says the agency, checked baggage is more rigorously checked than are carry-on bags. Pardon me, but I don't have much confidence in that claim.

If I had my druthers, I'd take my chances with whatever is in the cabin, thanks. On the plus side, this is a policy that ought to stimulate the sales of paper books and magazines and since I'm in the business of the latter, perhaps I shouldn't complain.

Comments (27)

Perhaps TSA should just ban the carriage, ANYWHERE in the aircraft, of any battery larger than a AAA cell - a la their policy with regards to shampoo, toothpaste, etc. Wanna use your battery-powered devices after you get to your destination airport? Just purchase new batteries at the conveniently-located airport battery store.

If laptop manufacturers again would design their machines such that they could be powered externally - without requiring the installation of a battery (even a dead one) - passengers could use cabin-supplied power to drive their sans-batteries devices.

I'm not so much advocating such a policy; merely presenting it as a "solution" that actually would address the asserted security problem AND the legitimate safety concerns elucidated by Paul. Otherwise, it IS just more "security theatre."

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 15, 2017 4:44 AM    Report this comment

The security organizations in this Country are in charge of ... security. Unless you're privy to what THEY are privy to and get a daily AM security briefing, I'd say that the answers to your two questions don't apply, either way. Yars' idea would work but a laptop battery is mighty expensive. I don't see that many people using laptops aboard airliners anymore. Smart phones or iPads, maybe ... but not laptops.

I see this issue as being akin to the Doctor on United. Everyone wants everything THEIR way these days and to hell with rules, regs and instructions. I see all of those as tools used 'pointing the herd.' Also, people are possessed by their "machines." I see kids getting off of school buses and ... whoop ... out comes their cell phones. We are becoming a society of numb headed people as a result. Read your book. Take a snooze. Talk to your neighbor. Contemplate. Bring a note pad and write a blog.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | May 15, 2017 5:40 AM    Report this comment

"I don't see that many people using laptops aboard airliners anymore. Smart phones or iPads, maybe ... but not laptops."

Cripes, when's the last time you flew...1996? On my flight last Wednesday from Dallas to Tampa, I walked forward from the rear lavs and I'd guess at least a quarter of those seats, if not more, were using laptops. Some were watching movies, some doing something else I took to be productive work. In the modern workforce, work is 24/7 for many people. They need to maximize every hour.

Ever been in business class on an international flight? Laptop usage will be much higher because, well, people are working. And in case you don't know it, business and first class seats carry the profit freight, not coach. Those ticket buyers have a vote in this and I suspect they'll complain. As well they should.

But you're right about one thing: We should all be voice-activated automatons and do exactly and unquestioningly as the government says. With that in mind, you should stop complaining about ADS-B because unless you're privy to what the FAA knows, you should follow the edicts to the letter, no?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 15, 2017 7:25 AM    Report this comment

Globally banning laptops & large tablets would definitely blow the airlines' new bright idea of moving the entertainment system to wi-fi, which streams to your personal device for display, thereby saving all that investment, weight & maintenance of seat-back displays.

I suppose you could go the other way, add a membrane keyboard to the fold-out tray and have it & the seat-back display talk to your PDA. Or just mandate a plug-in data port for every citizen's cranium, a la "Matrix". Brave new world unleashes spectrum of new problems to solve :-)

Posted by: John Wilson | May 15, 2017 7:48 AM    Report this comment

One possibility we need to be concerned about, is computer viruses hitching a ride on airline aircraft. I've heard stories about how, if you go to some Pacific destinations, your laptop will be so contaminated by viruses you might as well "wipe" the hard drive.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | May 15, 2017 8:40 AM    Report this comment

Paul is right on the mark: business class travelers on international flights are head-down working for much of the trip. The time in the air is not lost; rather, productively engaged. With reasonable speed internet now, the business traveler is not even out of communication for the trip.

If this laptop ban goes forward, look for large corporations to resume their international private aviation ... for cost savings and retail investor optics, many cut them completely and now charter only for top-tier officers when business essential. I'd suspect private flying may even expand to key executives who are not principal officers, particularly if several needed to travel to the same destination. The no-laptop time costs money; private flying give corporations an opportunity to buy that time back for key employees. Look for that to expand/increase if the no-laptop rules go forward.

The cost to the economy for this change is non-trivial; Paul is correct that a cost-benefit analysis should really figure into this choice. "Absolute" security at any price is nonsense. Accepting reasonable risks balanced against the cost of a security measure (e.g. probability/magnitude) is important. "Just trust us" or "you don't have a choice" is nonsense.

Posted by: DON HUDDLER | May 15, 2017 8:49 AM    Report this comment

An additional aspect I didn't mention is the trusted traveler programs. I've had Global Entry for two years and found it worth the cost. Under the new policy, even trusted travelers will be denied laptop carry on privileges. Anyone in these programs has been fingerprinted, voluntarily interviewed and security checked. The risk of one turning into a suicidal terrorist is probably as close to zero as it's possible to get.

Yet denying such a person the opportunity too work during the flight is supposed to reduce risk and enhance safety? This is ludicrous. It's like using a shotgun to shoot a fly. Which leads me to the inevitable comparison to unworkable gun laws. They fail philosophically for the same reason: Over broad punitive treatment of the innocent in exchange for immeasurable risk reduction.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 15, 2017 10:05 AM    Report this comment

A disproportionate use of force to solve a problem? Bring a wireless keyboard and use your iPhone or equal.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 15, 2017 10:45 AM    Report this comment

"Bring a wireless keyboard and use your iPhone or equal."

That sort of raises another question of just what is considered a "laptop". Take the Surface Pro for example: it's almost as much a laptop as it is a tablet, and there are plenty of similar devices out there. Will the ban thus have to include tablets too? And what about the large-sized phones that are basically mini-tablets with voice capability?

As the saying goes, those who are willing to give up liberty for safety deserve neither.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 15, 2017 12:25 PM    Report this comment

This story comes complete with TWO villains:
Lithium-ion batteries
Clearly, both are existential threats to aircraft.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 15, 2017 12:52 PM    Report this comment

If it's just lithium-ion batteries, why are we only now concerned about it when passengers have been flying with Li-ion-powered laptops for years? And why only laptops and not tablets, some of which have batteries nearly as powerful as laptop batteries? Don't forget some people also have external Li-ion "power pack" batteries, which don't seem to be included in the ban.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 15, 2017 1:48 PM    Report this comment

Gary: Your questions come complete with their own Keystone Cops answers. ;-)

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 15, 2017 1:54 PM    Report this comment

The laptop in the cabin ban pretends that the bad guys can't make timers. Sticking all the laptop together in the same cargo container actually gives the bad guys a better chance of causing damage. Some of the ME3 collect and pack the laptops at the gate, so all the laptops end up together on the plane.

TSA/DHS is doing their standard 'Do Something!' methods. They don't make flying any safer, but they can show they are doing something.

Posted by: John Clear | May 15, 2017 1:59 PM    Report this comment

The proposed rule, at least as reported, would ban everything larger than a cellphone. That means no tablets, either.

If you've got an iPhone 7, guess you're ok, even though it's nearly the size of a small tablet. I wonder if this is going to apply to the U.S.-originated east bound flights? And how about flights out of Asia? They aren't mentioned.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 15, 2017 2:26 PM    Report this comment

I predict a sharp rise in bluetooth keyboards. Wonder if they'll ban those too...

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | May 15, 2017 2:37 PM    Report this comment

Wonder if they'll let us borrow some FAA-approved or TSA-approved laptop/table for the flight.

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | May 15, 2017 2:41 PM    Report this comment

Remember, these are the same idiots who mandated to the airlines to disconnect and remove emergency oxygen generaters from lavs in airliners. Now they want to put all kinds of lithium ion powered items in the cargo holds of airliners? Let's ask UPS or Fedex or other cargo carrier crews what they think of that idea. It is about time TSA stop the secret nonsense and tell the public what is going on. It is stupid policies like this that keep me employed in the private charter aviation business. I think it is also time the FAA to get a backbone and start enforcing certifications rules and tell TSA to go pound salt with some of these stupid ideas instead of hiding behind their bureaucracy like they did with the SMO situation.

Posted by: matthew wagner | May 15, 2017 2:59 PM    Report this comment

I don't pretend to know what the security apparatus may know, but over the years I have wondered about the security of enclosed electronic devices such as laptops. You could probably fill enough C4 in there to bring down an airliner especially sitting next to the outer hull. Remember Pan Am 103 was brought down by a similarly filled CD player.

Posted by: A Richie | May 15, 2017 4:39 PM    Report this comment

I guess the logical step would be to ban passengers from airliners too. Think of the savings!

Posted by: Janyce Wynter | May 15, 2017 6:00 PM    Report this comment

I just spent 6 hours driving north listening to the radio about the President 'sharing' information about this very subject with our Russian 'friends over and over.' If HE is talking about it and Government agencies say there's a threat ... then there's a threat. This was obviously after you wrote this blog. We don't know when or where an actual attack will occur. My god ... on 9/11, SCATANA was invoked ordering ALL airplanes to land because no one knew for sure what was happening and which ones were OK and which were not. So what should we do ... say to hell with that, too, and keep on flying?

As I see it, safety and security of all the folks on an airliner are not only job #1 but far supersede inconveniencing some of the customers.. It is perfectly obvious that the bad boys are intent on bringing harm to us and are trying to find a way. Airliners bring lots of interest to them for the obvious reason. Who among those in this blog received a formal briefing today from the security agencies? I venture none. So it's all opinions here.

I have absolutely no problem with a business traveler using a laptop for his business needs if it's safe. But they're saying it isn't. As I see it, this is like playing Russian roulette with lives. So what's next ... travelers want to use their cell phones in flight so ... to hell with the rules on that, too?

As to LiPo batteries ... that's a whole different subject. And I do fly domestically two or three times a year. Your flight musta been filled with journalists returning from AUVSI ?? :-))

I'm with Richie. PanAm 103 was brought down by a CD player. Why take chances?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | May 15, 2017 10:39 PM    Report this comment

Naked passengers with no luggage; bre-boarding screenings with X-ray and MRI apparatus; psych profile approval within the last 24 calendar months. Can't be too careful.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 16, 2017 5:53 AM    Report this comment

Suddenly, it becomes apparent why BasicMed Exam item #9 is there ... somebody who gets 72 wirgins might pack some bad stuff up there ... :-)

There IS a balance between safety and security vs inconvenience or delay or anything else. But it isn't for us -- here -- to make that determination. We're just talking 'heads' opining.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | May 16, 2017 7:03 AM    Report this comment

And yet, in addition to the countless geniuses who protect us all from ourselves (and from others), there are morons who inhabit EVERY level of government. Just MY worthless opinion. :-)

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 16, 2017 7:23 AM    Report this comment

"It is perfectly obvious that the bad boys are intent on bringing harm to us and are trying to find a way. Airliners bring lots of interest to them for the obvious reason."

And as we give up liberties and freedom to be allowed the "privilege" to fly on a commercial airliner, we're already being harmed. Maybe not physically harmed as we were on 9/11, but harmed nonetheless. That's the true goal of terrorism: not to inflict damage (though that's part of their "toolbox"), but to inflict paralyzing fear on the citizens.

Maybe there is a credible threat to airlines vis-a-vis exploding laptops, but there has to be a better way to mitigate the threat than simply banning laptops from the cabins. It's basically as ridiculous as banning IFR flight in light single-engine aircraft because there are risks (which there definitely are). You determine what the biggest particular risk factors are and the likelihood of them happening, and then do what you can to lower either the risk or the likelihood of it actually happening. It seems to me that at a minimum, let the Global Entry passengers continue to use their laptops (I have an issue with that too because it's basically a pay-to-play game, but it's better than nothing).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 16, 2017 8:26 AM    Report this comment

Back in the bad old days when laptops first became popular, you would have to turn the computer on at security to "prove" it was a working device and not a possible bomb. If you had let the battery go completely dead, you had to plug the device in, or check it with your luggage. Since modern laptops boot up so quickly, why is that process not used now? A terrorist would have to be pretty good to build a bomb that actually still worked as a computer. Yes, it would slow down getting through security, but you already have to take the thing out and put it on the X-ray belt, so push the "on" button before it goes into the tunnel and let them view the screen at the other end. Or, does that make too much sense?

Posted by: John McNamee | May 16, 2017 11:21 AM    Report this comment

Larry, of course your 2nd paragraph regards the very worst aspect of all this. Imagine if people chose to spend their time in worthwhile ways, rather than staring down at their hands. Regrettably, if society ever does get back to a healthier place, I think it's going to be many generations away.

Posted by: Ken Keen | May 16, 2017 12:23 PM    Report this comment

For travel, the answer could be transparent plastic laptops. It's worked for kids backpacks.

Posted by: A Richie | May 16, 2017 4:59 PM    Report this comment

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