To catch everyone up, yesterday Ben noted a Royal Jordanian announcement that electronic devices would be banned from passenger cabins on U.S.-bound flights effective March 21st. This was quickly followed by rumors that this wasn’t just Royal Jordanian acting on a whim, but rather a new directive being issued by U.S. authorities, though the details were still fuzzy.
Late last night the Associated Press reported the electronics ban will apply to flights from Amman, Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Casablanca, Dubai, Doha, Istanbul, Jeddah, Kuwait City, and Riyadh. Those are nearly all the major airports in the Middle East and Northern Africa, and are hubs for the national airlines of each respective country. The impacted airlines are:
- Kuwait Airways
- Qatar Airways
- Royal Jordanian
- Royal Air Maroc
- Turkish Airlines
The prohibition on electronics in the passenger cabin impacts flights to the United States from any of these cities, regardless of where the passenger originates. So if you’re connecting through Istanbul from any of the 115 countries served by Turkish Airlines, you won’t be able to bring your electronics onboard for the flight to the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security has finally published details, which note:
Electronic devices larger than a cell phone/smart phone will not be allowed to be carried onboard the aircraft in carry-on luggage or other accessible property. Electronic devices that exceed this size limit must be secured in checked luggage. Necessary medical devices will be allowed to remain in a passenger’s possession after they are screened.
The approximate size of a commonly available smartphone is considered to be a guideline for passengers. Examples of large electronic devices that will not be allowed in the cabin on affected flights include, but are not limited to:
- Portable DVD players
- Electronic game units larger than a smartphone
- Travel printers/scanners
There is no impact on domestic flights in the United States or flights departing the United States. Electronic devices will continue to be allowed on all flights originating in the United States.
There was some initial confusion surrounding the duration of the ban, with some claiming it was for “the next 96 hours.” It appears now that the airlines were notified officially on Tuesday morning and given 96 hours to implement. The ban itself is indefinite.
Why these airports?
This has not been adequately explained, in my opinion. Some of them are unsurprising based on past incidents (namely Cairo, though Istanbul had issues last summer). Others, such as Abu Dhabi, are nearly inexplicable.
The United States operates a Pre-Clearance facility in Abu Dhabi, so those passengers are already subject to enhanced screening and scrutiny. Those planes even arrive in the U.S. as domestic flights!
This directive should theoretically (hopefully?) be a response to imminent and actionable intelligence, and I certainly want to give the benefit of the doubt there. But this is a very broad action, so it’s hard to make much sense of it.
Is this another Muslim ban?
I don’t know. This has been speculated by others, including a former administration official who told BuzzFeed News “It appears to be a Muslim ban by a thousand cuts.”
The logic there is that if certain groups can’t be outright banned from entering the country, then perhaps they can be disincentivized from visiting if the experience and process is onerous enough. Visas in advance versus ESTAs, extra screenings, more expensive flights, no electronics — you get the picture.
It’s of course impossible to know whether or not that’s a motivation here. While none of the impacted countries were included in the administration’s original travel ban (and none of those countries have direct flights to the U.S.), all of the new countries involved have Muslim majorities. Correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation though.
Is this about protectionist trade policies?
This actually seems more likely to me, because of one glaring exclusion:
While most of the countries on the list have very stable governments and infrastructure, there is an active threat of terrorism in many parts of Nigeria. Concerns surrounding the Boko Haram group have necessitated counter-terrorism drills at the airport itself.
Granted, the intelligence that is prompting this action may be specific enough to include the United Arab Emirates yet exclude Nigeria. But the only airline flying directly from Nigeria to the United States these days is Delta.
So the circumstances feel a bit suspicious to me.
What about batteries in the hold? Can these devices even be checked?
There’s a bit of confusion here as well, because while the FAA has limited the transport of lithium-ion batteries as cargo, they are still allowed for personal use:
“Passengers can carry most consumer-type batteries and portable battery-powered electronic devices for their own personal use in carry-on baggage…Except for spare (uninstalled) lithium metal and lithium-ion batteries, all the batteries allowed in carry-on baggage are also allowed in checked baggage. The batteries must be protected from damage and short circuit or installed in a device.”
That could change, of course, particularly if plane-loads full of people start checking their personal electronic devices, but as of now it’s allowed.
Whether or not it’s a good idea is something else entirely. Runway Girl Network addressed concerns about consolidating electronics away from passengers and crew yesterday:
The crucial question for aviation safety is this: is it more safe to simply push all electronics into the hold, where firefighting is exponentially more difficult than in the cabin, without any additional screening, or to properly screen all electronics with potential voids that could cache threat contraband — via X-ray, explosive swabs, the “turn it on and do something with it” test, and so on?
It’s tough to find a logical explanation as to how removing electronic devices from the passenger cabin on certain flights will improve safety, though again — I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt.
The most immediate impact of this directive will be to inconvenience travelers. Passengers wanting to travel with tablets and laptops will have to risk theft and damage in order to do so. This will be a complete non-starter for many (or most) business travelers.
There are logistical questions as well — will all outstations know to police electronics in hand-baggage? What happens if a passenger goes to board their connecting flight in Dubai (the largest airport in the world for international passenger traffic) and has a Kindle in their purse? Will their checked bag be pulled so they can add their devices? How will that impact departures?
Then there’s the economics. It’s hard to imagine this won’t financially hurt the nine carriers who have hubs in these cities. Business travelers will almost certainly have to book away, as the convenience of a one-stop routing on Emirates is nearly obliterated by the risk of losing access to sensitive materials.
And of course, it all seems like a rather foolhardy exercise, as bad actors could easily circumvent this policy by booking a connecting flight on separate tickets or just through another city.
Update: DHS has released a FAQ document this morning which is worth reading, but doesn’t answer many policy or logistical questions.
What are your thoughts on these new restrictions?