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In late March the United States decided to introduce a ban on all inflight electronics larger than a smartphone for departures to the US from 10 airports in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey. A few days later the United Kingdom introduced a similar ban but only from 6 of the airports the US targeted. There were rumors at the time that the US may consider extending that ban to other airports and now those rumors appear to be hitting a crescendo.
It is strongly rumored that, possibly as early as tomorrow (Wednesday 10 March), the United States will ban travelers from bringing their laptops, Kindles and iPads onboard flights departing Europe for the US…..and that isn’t going to be fun for anyone.
When the US introduced the original ban a lot of us assumed that it was, at least partly, a sneaky way of handicapping the big 3 Middle Eastern Carriers and favoring US carriers at the same time. Those suspicions were doubled when the UK decided against including Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Qatar when it introduced a similar ban, when no other European country (with whom intelligence is routinely shared) introduced a ban of any kind and when we all noticed noticed that Delta’s flights out of Nigeria (a Boko Haram stronghold) were not included in the US ban.
If the US was to now introduce a similar ban on flights originating in Europe that would throw a different light on things – that would certainly not be as big a hit to the Middle Eastern Airlines as it would be to European and the US’ own airlines – so what’s going on?
The simple answer is that I don’t know……but there are a few things that really don’t make sense here and they’re worth taking a look at.
Let’s assume for a moment that there is a real “clear and present danger” that has been identified by US/allied intelligence and that this isn’t an attempt to hamper non-US airlines or a tactic on the part of the US administration to keep an ill-educated public scared and focused on anything but domestic matters….what are they actually trying to achieve?
- Electronics can still go in the hold of an aircraft so if it’s a bomb they’re attempting to protect against then I don’t see how putting it in the hold rather than the aircraft cabin is going to make much difference – Lockerbie makes that point quite well.
- If it’s not a bomb but some other device that can bring an aircraft down (by interfering with controls, communications or something else) then I still don’t see how putting it in the hold will make all that much difference – aircraft cargo holds aren’t isolated in any meaningful way.
If we assume that there actually is a device being developed by the bad guys that’s the size of a laptop but that can only bring down an aircraft if it’s in the cabin there is still a big unanswered question:
- What’s to stop a terrorist putting such a device in the hold on, let’s say, a London – Dallas flight, and then, when he picks up his bag before he connects on to somewhere else in the US, removing it from his checked baggage and putting it in his carry on? Will the US authorities expand the ban to cover all US domestic flights too?
On top of all this let’s not forget that a lot of the devices that travelers would now be forced to check-in have, up until now, been devices that airlines have specifically banned from going in the hold because of the concern over lithium batteries.
Are these devices and batteries suddenly safe? Or have all aircraft suddenly been fitted with sufficient fire suppression equipment to deal with a battery fire in the hold?
There is also the question of why this ban would only apply in one direction? Does anyone really believe that the TSA (whose reputation for being truly incompetent couldn’t really be any worse) is any more likely to find a device of the type we’re discussing than security services at London, Paris, Frankfurt etc….? Of course not.
TSA agents routinely fail to discover firearms and knives in passengers’ carry-on baggage so the chances of them finding a highly sophisticated device of the type that can outwit all European security is zero.
I don’t know for sure if this ban will be extended to Europe but I suspect that it’s coming and that it’s coming very soon.
One thing is for sure: If the US bans electronic items in cabin baggage in one direction only then Europe needs to ban them coming the other way.
I’m prepared to give the governments an ill-deserved benefit of the doubt and believe that they may know of some potential threat that they’re trying to defend us from…..but I can’t see why anyone should believe that the TSA is competent enough to prevent a tragedy that apparently no European agency can prevent.
The biggest issue appears to be that, even if there is a real threat here, the measures being taken don’t appear to be sufficient to stop an attack. All that’s really going to happen is that thousands of passengers are going to be inconvenienced….a lot! (and the thieves amongst airport baggage handlers are set for a bonanza).
Worst of all…..who knows when this seemingly ineffective ban would ever be lifted.
10 years after it was introduced we still have a ridiculous ban on liquids in our carry-on despite the fact that a group of determined terrorists could, between them, easily get enough dangerous liquid on to an aircraft to carry out whatever nefarious plot they have….and yet here we all are still getting our plastic bags out at security checkpoints around the world.
Message to the US: if there really is a threat then fair enough, take whatever precautions you think you need to….but don’t do it in the amateurish, haphazard, ineffective way you’re going about things now. Also, make sure you have consensus from your allies – some of them have a l0t more experience dealing with terrorists than you do!
(HT: View From The Wing)