Yesterday’s “leak” of an electronics ban on Royal Jordanian flights into the United States was just the tip of the iceberg. It quickly became clear that it was not only Royal Jordanian or Jordan affected by the ban, though details were slow to emerge. We now know that nine airlines serving the United States from ten airports are affected.
The enhancement in security will require that all personal electronic devices (PEDs) larger than a cell phone or smart phone be placed in checked baggage. These items will no longer be allowed to be carried onto aircraft at 10 select airports where flights are departing for the United States. Approved medical devices may be brought into the cabin after additional screening.
The affected airports and airlines are:
- Casablanca (CMN) – Royal Air Maroc
- Amman (AMM) – Royal Jordanian
- Kuwait City (KWI) – Kuwait Airlines
- Istanbul (IST) – THY Turkish Airlines
- Doha (DOH) – Qatar Airways
- Abu Dhabi (AUH) – Etihad
- Dubai (DXB) – Emirates
- Cairo (CAI) – EgyptAir
- Jeddah (JED) – Saudia
- Riyadh (RUH) – Saudia
Airlines have 96 hours to implement the new policy from the official announcement date of 8a EDT on 21 March 2017; DHS is not mandating how that happens, only that it be in place by Saturday morning. DHS also makes it clear that the airports involved could change at its whim. As currently published the rule affects just under 60 daily flights representing roughly 15,000-20,000 daily passengers inbound to the United States (most flights are on 777-300ER or A380s with 300-400 seats). That’s a lot of laptops and tablets and cameras and e-books suddenly flying in the hold compartment of airplanes and a lot of pissed off passengers.
The United Kingdom followed suit later on Tuesday, announcing similar policies but covering different airports and airlines. Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Kuwait and Casablanca are exempt from the UK ban while Tunisia and Lebanon are added; those two countries do not offer non-stop flights to the USA so that may explain their absence on the US list. Unlike the US rules which affect no US-flagged carriers the UK version will see six of its airlines impacted by the new rules.
Is it even safe?
There are many rules governing batteries carried in the hold of passenger aircraft. And no doubt you’ll read that carrying lithium ion batteries as cargo on commercial flights is a violation. Fortunately checked bags are not considered cargo in this context and the batteries generally are permitted to be carried. Here’s what the FAA has to say:
In short, most devices powered by such batteries are permitted in checked bags. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good idea, either from a fire risk or a theft risk perspective. But it is absolutely permitted by FAA and ICAO rules.
On the fire risk front there have been a few incidents in recent months of electronic devices catching fire in the cabin. Typically those are traced back to issues with the batteries. And typically they are quickly addressed by the cabin crew when an incident occurs. If that were to happen in the checked baggage hold the ability to quickly and directly respond is much lower. There are fire suppression systems installed but the risks are higher. But such batteries fly in the cargo hold as part of checked bags all the time. It is a slight increase in risk but not necessarily one that reaches a tipping point.
That said, it is unclear that removing these items from passengers’ possession in the cabin truly changes the security profile for carrying them on board. All bags are scanned for explosives and a timer trigger is not all that complicated relative to a manual one. Put another way, it is unclear exactly what the threat profile here is that the new policy seeks to address. And that makes it much harder to deliver improved security.
A Muslim Ban in Costume?
Does this electronics ban simply replace the twice failed Presidential Executive Order to block immigration from a limited subset of countries? On the surface that is an easy conclusion to draw.
"Trump couldn't ban Muslims so he's banning Muslim laptops." ~ @HeyItsMurad 😂😂😂😂 I can't.
— Linda Sarsour (@lsarsour) March 21, 2017
And that was an early take I had on the issue as well. The skeptic in me still believes that is a very likely factor in implementing the rule. That said, the willingness of the UK to go along with the policy suggests to me that there might be more to it. And in the hours since the policy was first announced more and more sources are suggesting there might be a specific threat related to batteries and Al Qaeda. Though none are explaining how putting those battery explosives in the hold makes it a safer experience.
The different countries affected by the US and UK versions on the ban – specifically Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi – raise another angle on the policy that must be considered.
Three US airlines have been pressuring the US Government to take up their economic fight with Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways. While US authorities have been unwilling to directly act on the Open Skies issues to date this move – and especially with the absence of UK action on those same airports – looks a lot like it is economically and politically motivated, not a safety issue.
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) March 21, 2017
Even for the destinations not served by US carriers the move does push more traffic on to joint venture partners or to other, more friendly countries. Though to say that Qatar is not a friendly country to the USA is one of the more ridiculous assertions one could make these days given the close military ties.
Another consideration is the Air Transport Agreement between the USA and UAE. Article 7, Section 6 suggests that when deviation from commonly accepted security principles occurs the two countries should try to fix things within 15 days before potential actions such as unilateral changes to policies. There is an exception for emergencies but it is unclear if the US chose to even try to pursue bilateral adjustments to policies in this case, though most indications imply no.
6. When a Party has reasonable grounds to believe that the other Party has departed from the aviation security provisions of this Article, the aeronautical authorities of that Party may request immediate consultations with the aeronautical authorities of the other Party. Failure to reach a satisfactory agreement within 15 days from the date of such request shall constitute grounds to withhold, revoke, limit, or impose conditions on the operating authorization and technical permissions of an airline or airlines of that Party. When required by an emergency, a Party may take interim action prior to the expiry of 15 days.
Even if the economic and political angles are not the primary factors it is hard to ignore them in the context of some of the additional details we’ve seen thus far.
The DHS FAQ on the issue indicates that the airlines were “notified on March 21st at 8:00 a.m. EDT.” Royal Jordanian announced its compliance with that policy 20 hours prior to the notification time. Saudia also indicated it was affected around the same time. Perhaps 8a is simply the time when the 96-hour implementation clock started, which is fine, but saying that airlines were notified at one point when it is clear they knew – and implemented the policy requirements – sooner is a strange place to be.
And in the end it probably doesn’t really matter as the US clearly was going to do whatever it wanted anyways. The impact on some 20-30,000 daily passengers across multiple airlines and countries will be massive. And the impact to the global economy will be as well. This is not just tourists or refugees or business travelers. It is the whole, interconnected system that works together (even with a bit of friction among members) to create and support jobs in an industry that is core to many individuals and many countries. Crushing the tourism industry has follow-on impact in engineering and manufacturing and banking and real estate and farming and many, many other areas.
The inconsistencies in the implementation and threat model seem to belie any useful justification of such.
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