TIM ROBINSON looks at the controversy surrounding the surprise introduction of a passenger laptop and iPad ban by US and UK authorities. Is a security pantomime destined to end in a safety tragedy?

The failed attempt to down an airliner in February 2016 over Somalia by a fundamentalist terror group, along with the destruction of a Russian Metrojet A321 over the Sinai desert in October 2015, were wake-up calls, that despite the increased security in the post 9/11 world, the global air transport system remains a highly tempting target for terrorists.

Yet the introduction in March this year of new security restrictions banning large electronic devices in the cabin by the US and UK, (which comes in the wake of controversial US restrictions on travellers from some Muslim majority countries) entering the country, has provoked a fierce debate on the timing, effectiveness and real purpose of these new measures. The surprise restrictions on electronic devices bigger than smart phones on direct flights to the US from ten airports in the Middle East (and Turkey) left the air transport industry scrambling to react to the US 96hour deadline. 

When Alexandre de Juniac, Director-General of usually hyper-conservative IATA, the airlines industry group, says of these new rules: “It is difficult to understand their effectiveness” and says “we call on governments to work with the industry to find a way to keep flying securely without separating passengers from their personal electronics” there is an impression that these measures have been badly thought-out and implemented.   

An increased threat?

The debris field from the Metrojet A321 destroyed by a bomb over the Sinai in 2015. (Russian Ministry of Emergency) 

Conversely, while the US and UK authorities have said the new measures are not in response to a specific threat, there are reports that the air transport industry may be again in terrorists sights. The February 2016 incident, which saw a bomb hidden in a laptop smuggled airside to be delivered to an accomplice, who then succeeded in blowing a hole in the side of the A320 (and themselves) was a lucky escape, with the airliner landing safely back in Mogadishu. The Metrojet bombing, too, remains unsolved - and press reports have speculated that new intelligence from a US special forces raid in Yemen in late January may have contained information about Al-Qaeda plots. Indeed, as part of the 2015 SDSR, the UK announced that its security experts would fan out to audit international; airports and assess the risk of ‘insider attacks’ after the Metrojet downing. It is noteworthy that a UK ban on airlines flying to Sharm el Sheikh still remains in force.

Other news reports have highlighted the possibility of a difficult-to-detect explosive device built into an iPad as being the reasoning behind the electronics ban.

There are also the wider geostrategic factors to consider. In particular, the noose around ISIS’s remaining territory is now tightening as they approach their own Götterdämmerung or final stand. The fear here, therefore, is that some key ISIS operatives (including bombmakers) are (or already have) made plans to slip away to continue an underground terror campaign.  

So with these potential heightened threats, why are there so many reservations about the electronics ban?

Major loopholes

Security has become tighter after 9/11, liquid explosives plot and the 'underpants' bomber. (Heathrow Airport)

First, is that if the intention is to prevent a terrorist manually assembling or activating a bomb hidden in a laptop or iPad (or locating it near a critical part of the aircraft) then there are still giant loopholes in these rules. Fly direct to the US from one designated airport, and your laptop is deemed unsecure, but stopover at another and you can theoretically carry it in your cabin. An easy way around this would be to fly from a Middle Eastern or North African airport NOT covered by these rules. And if the threat is a manually assembled or set-off device (instead of the ‘insider threat’), what is to stop terrorists incorporating a traditional timer, pressure switch or even triggering it using a BlueTooth device or WiFi using their smart phone from their seat? The fact that European countries have decided not yet to follow the US and UK lead means that there is a gaping loophole that could be easily exploited.

Smaller bombs, tougher targets

This Aloha Airlines 737 survived an explosive decompression in 1988 - yet landed safely. (Wikipedia) 

While any demolitions expert can explain how little explosive is needed in a critical part to destroy a target such as a bridge - modern airliners are tougher than they might first appear. The February 2016 laptop device only blew a small hole in the aircraft (aided by the aircraft not being at cruising altitude). Yet in 1988 an explosive decompression ripped off the whole of the roof of the forward cabin of an Aloha Airlines 737 with the aircraft landing safely. Incredibly there was only one fatality. Similarly the Qantas A380 QF32 suffered an uncontained engine failure in 2010 that might have brought down earlier generations of aircraft. Today's airliners, thanks to decades of aviation accidents incorporate multiple redundant systems, making them highly robust. The smaller the explosive package then (an iPad weighs 1.5lbs), the more precisely and intelligently it will need to be positioned to bring down today’s airliners and the more difficult a terrorists job.   

Confusion reigns

Spelling it out. (Heathrow Airport)

The second reservation is that the new inconsistent rules are guaranteed to cause confusion to security guards enforcing them, airlines implementing them and travellers flying. Introduced, it appears in haste, without consultation this will cause more disruption. Said de Junaic: “Why don’t the US and the UK have a common list of airports?”

Even today, liquids aerosols and gels (LAGS) and the varying shoes on/off rules at different airports cause stress, frustration to ordinary travellers and means an inordinate amount of time and effort is spent managing and attempting to educate passengers. In the US only last week the TSA confiscated 88 firearms from people trying to board an aircraft with a gun - despite these rules existing since the 1960s.

The loopholes above mean that the first ‘I purchased a banned iPad at duty free, but it was let on board’ headlines are now only days away.

Safety and security should, of course, take priority over minor inconvenience - however these measures seems designed to add extra stress and confusion, which may also end up having an effect on the airlines bottom line.    

Business travel damage

Qatar Airways has already announced it will loan laptops to passengers. (Qatar Airways)

In particular, for the business traveller, the laptop or iPad is now an essential travel tool. While some executives may welcome the laptop ban as a chance to log-off the grid for 12 hours, others may have no choice. Last minute reports, presentations or urgent deadlines means that the aircraft has now turned into a place of work. Companies paying high premiums for their employees to travel business and arrive rested and ready for meetings straight off the aircraft may start to rethink if a long-haul flight is now effectively a day-off. Expect a boost in video-conferencing if this situation persists.

There may also be some additional reasons why companies will find this a bitter pill to swallow. Some travellers may be carrying a laptop that they CANNOT leave unattended - for example those with vital legal documents, company IP or software or even government employees with sensitive material.  Will they be forced into using business aviation? 

It may not just be business travellers affected by this measure. Some commentators have also pointed out that iPads are now a key distraction for today's toddler and teenager on long flights. Again, some would argue that a return to a pre-digital age of colouring books, puzzles and physical toys may be no bad thing for today's pampered tots - unless of course you are the one having to shush them from bawling on a ten-hour flight because their favourite Peppa Pig app is locked in the cargo bay.  

Having already used the electronic ban to highlight their extensive IFE selections, in-flight dining and other services, quick thinking Emirates, Etihad and Qatar have already responded by announcing they will loan free laptops and tablets to passengers to get around the ban. 

WiFi revenue damage

Emirates cleverly used the electronics ban to highlight its giant IFE selection of TV and movies (Emirates).

Even if business travellers do not desert airlines or airports, associated with this is potential lost revenue from inflight WiFi. Airlines now are spending billions to upgrade their fleets with in-flight connectivity and promising travellers that their journey will have the same access to the Internet as they enjoy in the office or home. While some airlines see Inflight Internet as a loss-leader - others are hoping that heavy users (ie business travellers and the young digital generation) will help them recoup some of the installation costs. The electronics ban now throws these market assumptions into limbo for airlines affected – at least while the restrictions remain in place. Although you will be able to still connect via a smart phone (Emirates, for example, says only 6% of its travellers use laptops to connect, the majority 90% using smaller devices) the size of the device obviously will limit its practicality for more intensive or complex work.   

Re-routing traffic flows

Will the electronics ban reshape global air traffic flows? (NATS) 

The upshot of this disruption, confusion and inconvenience is that some analysts believe that this electronics ban has the potential to reshape passenger traffic flows away from the Middle East and Gulf. Over the past 20 years the Gulf carriers, led by Emirates  and consequently joined by Etihad and Qatar Airways, have successfully pulled the global centre of aviation towards the Gulf. Dubai, in particular, has been transformed from sleepy fishing town to a global aerotropolis, with Emirates expanding into a global carrier. Perfect geographic positioning, high quality service, modern fleets and the backing and support of home governments have seen the Gulf airlines create a modern miracle as they have aimed at catering for a growing, travel-hungry global middle class.

For aircraft manufacturers in the US and Europe, the result has been bumper orders for airliners from Gulf carriers to match this incredible growth.

However, while there has already been indications that the Gulf airlines have reached their peak, the electronics ban, by associating these airlines (and Middle East/Gulf airports) with an enhanced threat and adding massive inconvenience to passengers could see traffic start to flow around the Gulf, back to Europe or Singapore - the previous stop-off for airlines connecting Asia, Europe and the East Coast of the US.

This could have big implications, not only for the Gulf three but for Airbus and Boeing and the previously stable Gulf states, which have so far avoided the violence and extremism of much of the Middle East by investing heavily in a globalised, optimistic future driven by tourism, shopping and travel.                 

Protectionism by other means?

Qatar Airways 777 being built at Boeing. Could the electronics ban damage future US airliner sales? (Qatar Airways)

Related to this above reshaping of global passenger flows is the nagging suspicion that the electronics ban, introduced in haste and with giant loopholes for terrorists wanting to get round them, may be less about security and more about thinly veiled protectionism as a weapon to hit the Gulf carriers. Even the most charitable reading that it is a reaction to clear and present danger such as an iPad bomb plot damage to the Gulf airlines traffic flows, yields and revenues, would not be unwelcomed by the major US airlines who have been lobbying hard for years that the US has been competing at a disadvantage.

With new President Donald Trump, whose goal is ‘Make America Great Again’ the big three US carriers may finally have found an ally to hit back at their foes with a plausibly deniable protectionist move, dressed up as security. The timing, lack of consultation and the inclusion of modern airports (In particular Dubai and Doha) generally rated as highly security conscious (Abu Dhabi even has US customs pre-clearance) leads to some conspiracy theorists to suspect that there are additional motives behind the ban.

Yet the electronics ban as a protectionist weapon ignores that UK (with deep links to UK intelligence) following suit and other countries (including Canada and France) are mulling introducing similar rules. And while the rivalry between the Big 3 in the US and Gulf is well known – there are also partnerships with US airlines. Emirates for example operates codeshares with JetBlue,and Alaska Airlines, while Etihad is a codeshare partner with American Airlines and JetBlue, as is Qatar. Protectionism in this way, then would be a blunt tool and could end up hurting US airlines as collateral damage.               

Safety or security?

US NTSB test video showing the dangers of improperly transported lithium-ion batteries as air freight. (NTSB)

The final reservation to the electronics ban is that while it may (and the jury is still out) increase air transport security, it could actually decrease safety by shifting dangerous lithium ion batteries from the cabin (where they can be dealt with if they catch fire) to the cargo hold, (where they can’t). The growth in passenger’s PED whether smartphones, laptops, chargers or tablet devices - all powered by lithium-ion batteries has meant the dangers of thermal runaway (where a battery overloads and catches fire) has been, in recent years, an increasing issue for airlines. A typical flight of 100 passengers there may be more than 500 lithium-ion batteries - most of course in PEDs in the cabin. Indeed, in 2014 the RAeS Flight Operations Group published an updated Specialist Paper on ‘Smoke, fire and fumes in transport aircraft’ highlighting the risks. In 2004 a FAA circular noted that a crew may have only as long as seven minutes to respond before a fire becomes uncontrollable. For a hidden fire, started by a laptop lithium-ion batteries packed in a suitcase surrounded by clothes (and therefore aiding conditions for thermal runway) in the cargo bay the crew may have no way of dealing with this until it is far too late.

Moving lithium-ion battery powered devices to the cargo bay, flies in the face of recent safety recommendations, not only from the RAeS, but after a spate of ‘hoverboard’ fires the FAA explicitly banned putting lithium-ion batteries in the checked luggage as it is impossible for the crew to deal with. 

Summary

The Gulf has been a key powerhouse for global aviation growth. (Emirates) 

The fear in the aviation industry is that these measures, introduced as an emergency directive will become, like the 100ml liquids (LAGs) rule, permanent over time and thus have the potential to cause massive disruption, harm airlines’ business  and even reshape global travel patterns - without substantially improving security. “The current measures are not acceptable as a long-term solution” said IATA’s de Junaic. Previously experience suggests passengers are happy to support and abide by new security restrictions if the threat is perceived as real and the rules are simple and easy to follow. However the latest ratcheting up of ‘security theatre’’ as some critics call it does not seem to be easy to understand.   

In addition, paradoxically these rules may have have heightened the risk of an airliner being brought down by a hidden lithium-ion battery fire that starts in a cargo bay. Aviation will always be a tempting target and authorities need to remain vigilant - but introducing security measures that may have a deep economic impact as well as increasing physical risk to passengers from fire seems a curious trade-off.

Tim Robinson
31 March 2017