US Electronics Ban on Certain Flights is Dangerous, Risks Lives

The CEO of Qatar Airways is pushing back against the US electronics ban saying it’s unnecessary, pointing out that in Doha they do explosive trace detection on 40% of passengers, and that bad actors will just depart from other airports without security that’s as tight.

The U.S. says they implemented the ban from certain airports because the government has more confidence in security at European airports (even though we know there have been actual terrorist attacks on airports in Paris and Brussels). However the ban doesn’t apply to China, to South America, to Lagos Nigeria (where Boko Haram is based but where Delta flies), or to Baku, Azerbaijan. A determined terrorist can’t bring a laptop onboard Dubai – New York JFK. But they can fly Dubai – Milan – JFK, Dubai – Athens – JFK, or Dubai – Baku – New York JFK.

Qatar’s CEO, who previously suggested the electronics ban wasn’t a trade war by other means, is clearly frustrated: he points out that as a big buyer of Boeing aircraft, and bringing jobs to the U.S. with every flight, “to us, America is first.”

The thing is, and this isn’t a new point it’s been made since day one, checking lithium ion batteries as cargo is dangerous. The European Aviation Safety Agency has expressed concerned over the electronics ban for this reason.

We can’t make the world risk free (although there are fewer people trying to take down planes than we often think). All we can do is transfer risk.

What I didn’t realize is that even the US can’t agree with itself on the best policy forward. In fact the FAA issued a safety bulletin in response to the US electronics ban.

As the Flight Safety Foundation explains, electronics can catch fire and when they do inside the cabin it’s manageable. When they do in the cargo hold, we’re toast.

There have been occasions when the lithium batteries in PEDs have suffered thermal runaway and caught fire. To mitigate this risk, cabin crew has been trained in how to manage these situations. With the transport of PEDs on certain flights now restricted to the cargo hold, along with other potentially flammable items within checked-in baggage, a known and managed risk has effectively been transferred to another part of the aircraft where, should thermal runaway occur, it is rendered inaccessible to cabin crew

Canada, Australia, and New Zealand share signals intelligence with the US and UK but haven’t felt the need to impose similar restrictions. Neither have France and Belgium.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It’s probably not wise to use France and Belgium as the poster children of governments protecting citizens from terrorism. Might as well add Germany to that list…

  2. “There are fewer people trying to take down planes than we often think”?

    Who is the “we” that Gary”s referring to? Does he assume that everyone else is naive and he knows the real scoop?

    And how could he ever support such a claim? Does Gary have access to protected information within the international intelligence community?

  3. @Brian the point about France and Belgium is that terrorists are attacking their airports, and even there such a restriction doesn’t seem to make sense. When coupled with lack of such a ban from Canada, Australia and New Zealand — and that the UK doesn’t impose the ban on flights from the UAE or Qatar — that’s pretty damning.

  4. The likely reaction to this is that PEDs will not be permitted in checked luggage either on flights from the designated airports.

  5. @Chad considering the government itself says that for a decade TSA failure rates at detecting dangerous items going through the checkpoint has ranged from 91% to 95%, the TSA isn’t STOPPING bad actors, there simply aren’t that many bad actors willing to die to take down a plane. The number isn’t zero but there aren’t as many as the terrorism industrial complex would have you believe.

  6. @Sean M and there’s a reasonable chance the number of airports grows, rather than questioning the original assumption of risk because they don’t ban electronics from Lagos or Baku they can just extend the ban to Lagos and Baku. That takes a more conservative approach AND shuts down a line of criticism, so it’s bureaucratically perfect.

  7. @Gary – My point isn’t that those countries are not touched by terrorism. My point is that they are acting like a bunch of fools playing “whack-a-mole.’ We should give them 0 considerations when developing a strategy for keeping Americans safe because people today walking around Brussels, Paris, Nice, etc. certainly do not feel that way.

    In regards to Canada, New Zealand, and Australia – those countries are so vastly different from the USA in population (and flights) that I’m not sure any of them are a good comparison.

  8. > The likely reaction to this is that PEDs will not be permitted in checked luggage either on flights from the designated airports.

    Actually, the likely reaction to this criticism is that PEDs will be banned in both the passenger cabin and in checked baggage – on ALL flights to the US.

    The net result will be that if you want to take it with you when going overseas, you will need to ship it home. Or just not go. As this widens (and I can’t help but imagine it will), this is going to have a devastating impact on business travel, vacation travel, and the airline & tourism industries. Lots of discount airfares coming up as seats start to go unfilled.

  9. @Gary, you continue to note the difference in AUS/NZ/CAN policy and reference the sharing of signals intelligence , but how do you know that intelligence discipline provides insight into this threat stream?It seems to me that human intelligence, detainee interrogations, or captured terrorist documents could be the basis of this intelligence. None of that would necessarily fall under the UKUSA agreement covering signals intelligence. This appears to be a large logical leap in your argument. The bottom line is you continue to throw accusations at the US government without having any access to the underlying intelligence.

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