Without warning on Tuesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that England would follow the United States’ example and ban certain electronic devices from flights originating from six Middle East countries. The announcement followed an earlier policy from the US Department of Homeland Security that bans “devices larger than a cell phone” on US-bound flights from ten airports in the Middle East, including airports in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Qatar. The British ban only includes six countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia. Both bans are effective immediately. They come less than a week after President Trump’s second Muslim ban was declared unconstitutional by the courts, and a day before the terrorist attack on Westminster that killed at least five people.
In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security claims the ban will be temporary and that it is in response to an unnamed security threat. In a statement made to the public, the DHS reported, “we note that disseminated propaganda from various terrorist groups is encouraging attacks on aviation, to include tactics to circumvent aviation security.” However, when further probed, the DHS was unable to name a specific threat that warranted the sudden change.
The change largely impacts business travelers, who often use laptops on airplanes, Many do not feel comfortable putting their laptops into their checked luggage for fear of theft. In 2006, when Britain ordered a similar technology ban, baggage theft rose to record levels. Many business travelers plan to reroute their flights to different airports or avoid traveling to the United States. US air travel companies have already begun to protest this ban due to the possible impacts on business. Turkish officials are currently trying to remove their airports from the ban. Turkish Transport Minister Ahmet Arslan told reporters he hopes to speak to United States officials, saying, “we particularly emphasize how this will not benefit the passenger and that reverse steps or a softening should be adopted.”
Other experts have expressed doubts about the benefits of the ban. Many note that the threat from information on a laptop can also be accomplished on a cellphone. The ban does not prevent plans for terrorism from occurring once the checked bag is returned. Furthermore, lithium batteries are permitted on flights, but are more dangerous than the banned devices. Other experts are skeptical of the timing of the bans. Security technologist Bruce Schneier told the Guardian, “From a technological perspective, nothing has changed between the last dozen years and today. That is, there are no new technological breakthroughs that make this threat any more serious today. And there is certainly nothing technological that would limit this newfound threat to a handful of Middle Eastern airlines.” Trevor Jensen, an aviation consultant, shared similar doubts about the timing of such a ban: “I hope that we are not just knee-jerking here and that this is a credible threat – that the safety issues have also been very carefully thought through.”
As more information from the Westminster attack unfolds, the ban may be rewritten accordingly. However, current opponents of the electronic ban, including flight companies, airports, and frequent travelers, are trying to find avenues to lessen the restrictions. Despite these attempts, officials suggest that travelers should expect delays and follow all instructions as the guidelines are enforced. The full effects of the electronics ban are still yet to be seen.