My jaw swung open when I read a headline last night that the U.S. was banning electronics in cabin baggage on flights coming to the US from eight majority Muslim countries. The airlines impacted are Royal Jordanian, Egypt Air, Turkish Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Etihad Airways.
Why the change in policy? According to the BBC, “The restriction is based […] on ‘evaluated intelligence.’ That means that US intelligence has either intercepted discussion of a possible extremist plot or has been passed word of one by a human informant.”
Perhaps if the current White House had a better track record regarding transparency, truthfulness, and a real interest in airline safety, I might be more apt to accept that explanation. That it mostly lines up with with countries targeted within the so-far un-Constitutional attempts to levy an immigration ban on predominantly Muslim countries, well, let’s say that I’m suspicious that this “evaluated intelligence” came to the U.S. president in a dream or through a source like InfoWars. Right now the decision simply appears designed to harass certain travelers.
That’s not to say terrorists (of any extremist religious sect) couldn’t be planning to bring bombs or bomb-making materials onto a plane; however, there are a few questions I have about this additional restriction.
- If this is such a high risk, why ban devices in the cabin but not in the plane itself? I realize that electronics within reach can be easily triggered for an explosion, but to a really motivated person it won’t matter whether the electronics are located in the cabin or the cargo hold–a cell phone, an mp3 player, etc can be modified to act as a trigger with a minimum of effort.
- If this is such a high risk, why only ban devices in the cabin on these airlines and from these countries? I can’t be the only one to think a really motivated person will simply fly to an airport/country that isn’t part of the ban and hop a plane there. Or fly to Canada or Mexico and drive over the border and target a non-plane place?
- If this is such a high risk, why is the U.S. the only country in the world insisting on this action?1 Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv has, arguably, the world’s most rigorous security and has never had an incident. It seems like all surrounding countries want to kill the Israelis and would happily bomb their planes. Or what about France? Extremists seem to be all about trying to target the French at every opportunity. The two main airports in and around Paris don’t have these measures in place. Why should the U.S.?
The whole thing makes little sense to me as a security measure, not just to me but to security and electronics experts. Sort of like back in the day when one schmuck hid explosives in his shoes and tried to bomb a plane–so then we all had to take off our shoes to go through security. Except now only some people have to do that. Vanity Fair did an investigation in 2011 about the futility of removing your shoes for airport security (among other security measures). It’s all basically for show, just as the immigration ban and ban on electronics seems to be.2
Beyond all that, though, I worry about how this is going to impact travelers. You know, just plain old, run-of-the-mill travelers like you and me. I haven’t had the opportunity to travel widely in the Middle East, but I have a deep interest. How long before Egypt and Abu Dhabi, etc, decide to go tit-for-tat on this new policy?
I tend not to travel with my laptop very often, but what if it’s necessary? On our most recent trip to Iceland I did bring it with me because I needed to work on a manuscript. I don’t willingly check my bags, but on one leg of the trip my bag was collected on the jetway and (literally) thrown into the cargo hold. I removed my laptop and took it with me into the cabin because my bag wouldn’t offer my protection against damage. Others, I know, travel with serious camera equipment or a tablet, and no one wants their expensive stuff at the tender mercies of ground crews who toss around bags without regard for what might be inside–not to mention that bags are lost all the time. Will the airlines bear responsibility for lost or damaged items? Will it now be on the government’s head?
The world has decidedly gotten smaller. The Internet, less expensive flights–there are a lot of reasons why, but it’s harder than ever to be isolationist. I’m way more interested in being a member of a global community–as a traveler and even just as an American. Policies like this new electronics ban are supposed to make us safer, but the opposite may actually be true. Sorting people into bins, whether by religion or ethnicity or national origin, just exacerbates terrorism and divides us. Who wants that? Just let us travel freely . . . with our tablets and laptops.
2. There’s also speculation that the electronics ban has little to do with security (which makes sense given Trump’s stance on not preventing lithium batteries on commercial airliners) and more to do with doing the U.S. airlines a solid: “The CEOs of the major carriers just met with Trump and this could have been something President Trump agreed to enforce in order to level the playing field,” said Brian Kelly, airline expert and founder of The Points Guy. “This could be in retaliation for the U.S. carriers perceived disadvantage in the global marketplace due to the Open Skies agreement.” That sounds just about right–hey, why worry about inconveniencing thousands and thousands of people, including your own citizens, when you can give corporate America a cookie?↩