America is prepared to ban laptops from cabins on flights to the US from UK and Europe, Homeland Security officials said today.
Earlier on Wednesday, European security officials whispered to The Daily Beast that the US will require notebooks and similar devices to be secured in checked baggage and placed in the cargo hold, on flights from UK and Europe into the States. If you're not checking luggage for the flight, you can forget bringing your computer into the USA.
The crackdown may come as early as Thursday this week, it is claimed. US officials wouldn't confirm the timing, but said of the ban: "It is under consideration."
In March, laptops were banned on flights from 10 airports in eight Middle Eastern countries to the US, after the authorities claimed to have evidence of a plot to blow up aircraft using explosives-packed notebooks. Last year, a plane flying out of Somalia was forced to make an emergency landing after a suspected laptop bomb blew a hole in its side.
If the ban is forthcoming, it's going to be a devastating blow for airlines. Passengers in economy are going to hate it but they're not the concern for airline bean counters – it's business and first class passengers that make transatlantic flights commercially viable.
Part of the reason businessfolk can persuade their accounting departments to sign off on the thousands of dollars needed to get a posh seat on an airline is that they can work on the flight. Airlines promote the variety of power points they have installed for just this purpose.
The other rationalization for this luxurious mode of travel is that travelers arrive rested and ready to go straight into a meeting. That's going to be difficult without a laptop, so premium passengers will have to check a bag in and wait at the carousel like some kind of economy-class peasant.
There's also the computer security aspect to consider. Thefts from checked-in luggage by corrupt baggage handlers and other lowlifes are fairly commonplace, and being removed from your machine also raises the possibility that customs could take an image of the contents of the device without your knowledge or consent.
Leaving aside the privacy and economic headaches, it also wouldn't make flying any more secure and could make it less so. If bombs can be built into laptops then having one go off, or even just ignite, in the cargo hold would make the consequences a lot harder to deal with.
Terror in the skies
Talk to any commercial pilot and their biggest fear when flying over an ocean is fire. If fire suppression systems can't contain the issue, the only way to have a hope of survival is to dive and attempt a landing on the ocean, which would be a death sentence over the Atlantic.
Aircraft cargo holds are cramped spaces, which makes firefighting difficult enough. Add in the fact that fire suppression systems have serious problems with lithium blazes as it is, and an explosive laptop in the hold is a major problem.
Some might say that won't be possible because surely the expensive scanning systems that airports use will catch any attempt to smuggle an explosive laptop on board in the first place. But if that's the case then there would be no need to ban them from the passenger level either.
So then why impose such a rule in the first place? Two words: security theater. Ever since the September 11 attacks, air travel has become plagued by security theater as governments take a variety of steps designed to reassure passengers that they aren't going to die in a screaming inferno and to make it look like they are doing something.
Most of these steps are largely ineffective. Body scanners can be defeated, liquid explosives are very difficult to set off, and the steps needed to defeat hijackers were worked out by passengers before the last plane hit the ground on 9/11.
In days of yore, passengers and air crew were advised to cooperate with hijackers and wait for a negotiated release. As the passengers of United Flight 93 worked out, those rules no longer apply and they, along with those flying on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 that contained the failed underpants bomber, realized that the only hope of survival is to attack the hijackers.
We're still awaiting a final decision on the ban, however, it does appear the US is about to open a new act in security theater. As a result we won't be any safer, will be massively more inconvenienced, and anyone holding international airline stock is going to see their portfolios taking a beating.
"No final decisions have been made on expanding the restriction on large electronic devices in aircraft cabins; however, it is under consideration," said the US Department of Homeland Security in a statement.
"DHS continues to evaluate the threat environment and will make changes when necessary to keep air travelers safe." ®