Laptop, tablet ban smacks of protectionism

Two weeks ago, the Donald Trump administration declared that travellers to the United States must check in their laptops, tablets and other large electronic devices on flights to the country.

Not all are affected though; just those flying in from 10 airports in eight Muslim-majority countries - Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The UAE is home to Dubai's Emirates and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways - two of the world's fastest-growing airlines. The ban also affects Qatar Airways.

Britain announced similar rules shortly after, but targets different countries from the US' list: flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Tunisia.

To add to the confusion, Australia said last week that security checks for flights from some Middle East airports would be intensified. It has not banned passengers taking laptops and other devices on board. It said additional screening is now done for passengers travelling via airports in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha in Qatar. Explosive detection screening is conducted for randomly selected passengers and their baggage. Checks may also include targeted screening of electronic devices, the Australian government has said.

If the ban persists, other countries, including Singapore, may follow suit.

Question: If the threat, one must assume, is the same, why the difference in the list of blacklisted airports? So far, there are no good answers.

But what exactly is the threat?

The US government has remained silent but reports quoting unnamed US officials say the restrictions came after a US raid on terrorist targets in Yemen in January found that terrorists have successfully developed compact battery bombs that fit inside laptops or other devices. Believed to be strong enough to bring an aircraft down, the bombs need to be manually triggered.

Earlier this week, US news network CNN reported that US intelligence and law enforcement agencies believe that terrorist groups have the capability to plant explosives in electronic devices such as laptops that cannot be detected by screening equipment commonly used at airports.


Passengers open their bags and show their electronic equipment at a security point at the Ataturk Airport, in Istanbul, Turkey. The US and Britain have banned some electronic devices in carry-on luggage on flights from some airports in Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

If this is true, why limit the restrictions to just the 10 airports in eight countries and in the case of the British ban, airports in six countries? It is easy enough for someone with evil intentions to fly to the US, Britain or Australia via any other airport where there are no such restrictions.

The stepped-up checks by Australia also make little sense if US intelligence says that terrorists may have found a way to circumvent existing checks.

The perplexity of the whole situation does not end here. Since passengers will have to check in their larger devices, there are also concerns about fire risk from lithium batteries. Indeed, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) - the commercial aviation arm of the United Nations - warns that incidents involving devices containing lithium batteries may be more easily mitigated in the cabin than in checked baggage.

The US and Britain have not said anything to mitigate the concerns.

Refusing to let the restrictions impact service levels especially in premium class, Emirates, Qatar and Etihad have told customers that they can use their laptops and other devices right before boarding their flights to the US. This means that travellers from Singapore to New York via Dubai for example, can use their laptops during the flight from here to Dubai and while in transit. The worry in this case is whether the laptops and other devices can be collected in time for them to be put through the usual screening before being loaded into the aircraft belly-hold.

Going one step further, Qatar and Etihad have also started lending premium passengers laptops and tablets to use on flights to the US. How this makes sense, given the current ban, is impossible to comprehend.

What this means is that it is a security risk if travellers use their own laptops on flights to the US but no risk if the laptops are given out by the airlines.

Rallying behind airlines affected by the ban, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which represents global carriers, has called for an urgent rethink.

Its director-general and chief executive Alexandre de Juniac said: "The current measures are not an acceptable long-term solution to whatever threat they are trying to mitigate. Even in the short term it is difficult to understand their effectiveness. And the commercial distortions they create are severe."

There is an urgent need for the US and Britain to engage ICAO and the aviation industry, to deal with whatever the threat is and come up with a sustainable long-term solution.

Whether it is restricting the amount of liquids and gels in planes or making regular flight tracking mandatory for all airlines, history has shown that security initiatives make sense and work best when introduced across the board, and mandated by ICAO.

The same global coordinated approach must be taken for the current ban on laptops and other electronic devices.

A failure to do so would serve only to perpetuate a growing belief that the true intention behind the ban is protectionism - to clip the wings of Middle Eastern carriers whose growth has been at the expense of other airlines including US carriers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2017, with the headline 'Laptop, tablet ban smacks of protectionism'. Print Edition | Subscribe