Ban Laptops From Airline Cabins?


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 byinconveniencingbusiness 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.