The UK and US ban on large electronic devices on certain flights is “breeding scepticism” in the government’s perception of business travel and labelled “nonsensical” and “unworkable”, as the industry reacts to the ruling.

David Holley, director at security consultancy HP Risk Management, told BBT the ban is “haphazard” with levels of security differing highly at certain airlines, while ACTE said it “made no sense” and raised concerns of higher costs for corporate travel programmes, and the Business Travel Coalition (BTC) said it will be “intolerable” for business travellers.

On Tuesday, both countries announced a ban on passengers from carrying any electrical devices larger than a mobile phone on US and UK-bound flights from Middle East and North Africa – mainly Muslim – countries.

Department for Homeland Security said the government is “concerned” over terrorists targeting commercial aviation.

Gulf airlines Qatar, Emirates and Etihad as well as Turkish Airlines could be the worst hit by the ban as they rely on transfer passengers who could need access to devices during the stopover. Travellers could now opt to travel via European hubs.

‘Intolerable’ for travellers

US travel body The Business Travel Coalition (BTC) said the ban raises many questions for business travellers around risk of losing sensitive information, damage to expensive equipment and loss of productivity.

“Such a ban is simply unworkable for most business travellers; they need to be productive during their trips,” said the BTC. “Many business travellers do not check luggage, even on long flights as it slows them down upon arrival at baggage claim. Now they must check their electronics with many paying for the privilege. Of deeper concern, will be trade secrets and other sensitive and valuable information that are stored on many business travellers’ laptops that could be copied or stolen.”

The BTC said the ban harms business traveller productivity as well as dampening demand for inbound US and UK travel and competitively advantages US airlines and their alliance partners – who have been pursuing protectionist strategies against the Middle East carriers.

“The productivity hit on business travellers and their organisations will be significant, if not intolerable,” the organisation said. “So, travellers departing Ahmedabad, India connecting through one of the affected Gulf airports onto New York City will be deprived of their laptops for 19 hours.”

The BTC said the US government points to a “changed threat environment” as rationale, but indicates that there is no specific or credible threat of an imminent attack. The ban does not apply to US airlines because there are no nonstop flights from those airports to the U.S. However, the BTC questions why was Lagos, Nigeria not included as Delta has a nonstop flight to that “severely security-challenged country?”

It adds: “The ban only applies to the last point of departure to the U.S. As such, and consequently, a laptop-carrying passenger could board an Air France flight at Istanbul and connect in Paris on Delta Air Lines to New York.”

Traveller safety

HP Risk Management’s Holley said there has always been a large discrepancy between how well some airlines “interrogate” electronic devices before allowing passengers to board aircraft.

“Royal Jordanian, for instance, has always been really good, while other Middle Eastern airlines are particularly lax,” he said. “The ban seems haphazard insomuch as 10 cities/airports in Africa, mainly North Africa, are implementing the ban while other cities and airports in Africa aren’t.

“Mobile phones are allowed on aircraft, but laptops, cables and power leads aren’t. This seems nonsensical.” 

ACTE chief executive Greeley Koch told BBT there is concern that other countries will now follow suit. “Without any explanation, the United States government banned major electronic devices that constitute the basic tools of business travel, now the UK has followed suit and Canada is reported to be giving the issue serious consideration,” said Koch. “But the restrictions make no sense. Assuming there is a new terrorist technology, there is nothing to stop someone from carrying one of these devices to Amsterdam, and then boarding a flight to the US or the UK.”

Koch asked: “Does the Department of Homeland Security know about a threat so great that it can’t be shared with the business travel industry? Or are these latest restrictions about to resonate as the new norm the world over? Speculation rivals uncertainty for bad news in the travel industry. Answers are needed now.”

Koch remarked that technology is transferrable. “How long will it be before this ban is extended to flights from Paris and Brussels into the UK and US? No one is going to willingly check their computers or tablets, which often host the most detailed and proprietary corporate information, in the cargo hold of an airliner.

He pointed out that many business travellers do not check baggage at all. “The first rule in business travel is not to be separated from anything essential to the success of your trip. And the most important component is your laptop or tablet. Travellers who do not check baggage normally, will now have to check their laptops, tablets, and e-readers on the affected flights. Baggage goes missing every day. Can you imagine the consequences of losing a week’s, or a month’s work, plus your confidential corporate data to a luggage theft?” Koch said.

Koch also mentioned that cost has no place in a conversation about security, but extra checked baggage will certainly add something to the price of travel.

“Travellers want the best security,” said Koch. “But without further explanation, these new restrictions will do nothing but breed further scepticism in government’s perception of business travel. They want security that is less reactionary and based more on eliminating potential threats before they evolve. And they want an explanation.”

Communication

The GBTA has supported the ban but called for continued communication between authorities and the business travel community.

GBTA strongly believes the security of our skies is of the utmost importance,” said GBTA director and COO Michael McCormick. “We support the Transport Security Administration’s (TSA) efforts in securing our airways and believe they should take all necessary steps to do so.”

“If it is in the best interest of security, business travellers are willing to comply with these types of measures. We encourage DHS to continue to adopt trusted traveller programs and expand pre-clearance to ensure that resources can be effectively allocated to detecting threats to homeland security.”

He added: “We are awaiting more information as to whether this addresses a specific security threat and reaching out to our members to assess the impact on business travel.”

Airports affected by the ban:

  • Hamad International Airport, Doha, Qatar
  • Dubai International Airport, UAE
  • Abu Dhabi International Airport, UAE
  • Ataturk International Airport, Istanbul, Turkey
  • Queen Alia International Airport, Amman, Jordan
  • Cairo International Airport, Egypt
  • King Abdul Aziz International Airport, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
  • King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
  • Mohammed V Airport, Casablanca, Morocco
  • Kuwait International Airport, Kuwait

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