Expanded laptop ban alarms travel industry

Expanded laptop ban alarms travel industry
© Hill photo illustration/Garrett Evans

The travel community is sounding the alarm over the potential expansion of a policy banning laptops in the cabins of certain flights to the United States.

The Trump administration is actively considering whether to bar carrying large electronics onto flights from Europe due to terrorism threats, an idea that the White House will discuss with European Union officials during high-level talks in Brussels on Wednesday.


But a major expansion of the security measure, which currently only applies to select airports in the Middle East and Africa, would disrupt the world’s busiest international traffic corridor and harm the global economy, travel advocates say.

“If the ban was to go ahead, it would hit the continent’s busiest airports hardest,” said Olivier Jankovec, director general of Airports Council International (ACI) Europe. “We are concerned about the consequences that such a ban would have on demand for transatlantic air travel — and ultimately connectivity between Europe and the U.S.”

The U.S. travel industry has been worried about a “Trump slump” on the $250 billion travel sector and now fears that European tourism and business will become the latest casualties of President Trump’s efforts to beef up national security.

Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security imposed a limited electronics ban on inbound flights coming from 10 airports in Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. 

Under the policy, passengers are prohibited from carrying electronic devices larger than a cellphone — such as laptops, tablets, cameras and portable DVD players — into flight cabins, though they can still stow the items in checked luggage.

Senior administration officials say the security protocols are necessary because terrorist groups are pursuing innovative methods to smuggle explosive devices onto commercial flights.

“You’re always weighing convenience against security,” said Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonDemings raises million after announcing Senate bid against Rubio Russia threatens to leave International Space Station program over US sanctions Nikki Fried, only statewide elected Democrat in Florida, launches challenge to DeSantis MORE (D-Fla.), ranking member on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

But expanding the policy to include Europe would affect a much larger slice of the inbound travel population: There are more than 350 flights from Europe to the U.S. every day.

“This gets a lot more real for people here, because now we’re talking about carriers that you fly and places you go,” said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association.

The U.S. welcomed 15.7 million visitors from Europe in 2015, or about 43,000 visitors per day, which accounts for more than 40 percent of all overseas inbound travel that year.

Those visitors pour money into the economy, according to the U.S. Travel Association, with European travelers spending an average of $3,500 per visit.

ACI Europe estimates that 60 percent to 90 percent of travelers carry an electronic device onto their flights, based on a sample of European airports.

And nearly half of business travelers prefer to stay connected and get work done while flying, according to the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), meaning that prohibiting electronics in carry-on bags could be a huge disincentive to travel. 

There are also concerns that expensive electronics, with potentially sensitive information, could be more easily stolen if people are forced to keep them in checked baggage. Some companies don’t even allow employees to check work laptops because of the potential risk.

“These policies do impact business travelers’ ability to stay connected, as well as cause conflicts with existing risk management procedures,” said Michael McCormick, executive director and COO of the GBTA. “Not allowing them to bring their devices on the plane reduces productivity.”

The restrictions could also make trips to the U.S. less appealing for tourists and more difficult for families traveling with kids.

“People have grown accustomed to traveling with electronics,” Grella said. “If people start to turn a monthly business trip into a quarterly business trip, it would then reduce the supply of flights. … It could have wide-ranging implications.”

Some are concerned that storing more lithium ion-powered devices underneath the plane could pose new safety threats. 

“We support [the Transportation Security Administration’s] efforts in securing our airways and believe they should take all necessary steps to do so,” McCormick said. “However, the question remains whether the targeted application of policies banning personal electronics is an effective measure to reduce the risk of terrorism.”

Even small decreases in tourism to the U.S. could deal a blow to the economy and cause job losses. 

A 1 percent shift in business travel costs could lead to the loss of 71,000 jobs, nearly $5 billion in economic growth, $3 billion in wages and $1.2 billion in tax collections, according to the GBTA.

And a 5 percent drop in tourism would cost the U.S. economy $12 billion to $15 billion and between 500,000 and 1 million jobs.

Three of the top U.S. airlines would be hit hardest by the expanded ban. Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines and British Airways are responsible for 60 percent of nonstop flights from Europe, according to CNN.

Middle Eastern airlines that are already affected by the ban have been scrambling to offer workarounds to the policy, such as giving business and first-class passengers loaner laptops on flights.

But Emirates airline announced it would be reducing flights to the U.S. in response to “weakened travel demand” amid pushback to some of Trump’s new travel restrictions, including the electronics ban.

“The fact that one of the affected Gulf airlines has downsized its operations in the U.S. is indeed worrying — and points to a wider and lasting economic impact,” said Jankovec.

European airports are warning about the “highly disruptive and far-reaching consequences” of an expanded laptop ban.

The policy could cause major headaches for airport and airline operations because the ramped-up screening would require additional staff who need special training and security clearances.

Affected airports may also need to change their gate allocation system for U.S.-bound flights and start the boarding process far earlier to accommodate the additional screening procedures.

A number of flights could be canceled and delayed in the wake of the possible new ban, ACI Europe said.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and other groups are pressing the administration to consider alternative options to the ban, such as boosting enrollment in trusted traveler programs and allowing pre-vetted passengers to skip the new security protocols.

The IATA, which has expressed frustration over the new security and travel restrictions, is also calling for better coordination between the industry and government.

“The responses of Canada, the EU and Australia to the same intelligence demonstrate that a ban on large electronic devices in the cabin is not the only way forward,” Alexandre de Juniac, director general and CEO of IATA, said earlier this month. “Indeed we believe that it is not sustainable in the long run.”