Laptop ban could be expanded to include U.S.-Europe flights

Regulators are considering expanding the ban on large electronics in aircraft cabins to flights between the U.S. and Europe. The previous ban affecting flights from certain countries has already had a negative impact on travel demand. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is considering an expansion of the so-called laptop ban as it weighs the ramifications of such a mandate on flights between the United States and Europe. There is already a ban on most personal electronics in the aircraft cabins of flights coming from certain countries, mostly from the Middle East and North Africa. Items larger than a smartphone are to be placed in checked luggage. The mandate is considered partly to blame for a recent softening of demand for flights to the U.S. originating in countries that are part of the ban. Gulf carriers Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways have been hardest hit since they have direct flights into the United States from their home countries. Now the ban could be extended to flights entering the U.S. from Europe and this has the airline industry and passengers concerned about unintended consequences, including new safety risks. 

Most hand-held electronic devices, including laptops, e-readers and tablets operate on lithium-ion batteries. There have been concerns among safety experts and airlines that large quantities of these batteries could pose a safety risk. Fires have been documented on aircraft carrying large shipments of lithium-ion batteries and this has resulted in a ban on these shipments on passenger aircraft. The batteries could come in contact with other metals or each other causing them to overheat and burst into flames. With passengers being asked to place their electronics in checked luggage, some experts fear that the risk is heightened once again. 

The U.S. government contends that the ban on personal electronics in the cabins of certain flights is necessary due to a growing threat from terrorists who could use the devices to hide explosives. Several carriers have provided loaner laptops and tablets to some of their passengers to mitigate the inconvenience but a wider ban could have deeper ramifications. While U.S. airlines might not mind the fact that Gulf carriers are the airlines most affected by the current ban (they are in a dispute with the carriers over alleged unfair subsidies), a widespread ban on large electronics between the U.S. and Europe would cut into the lucrative business travel sector. In addition, airlines also must contend with their own policies which state that they are not liable for electronics in checked luggage. If passengers are mandated to check these items or leave them at home, they might choose to not fly at all, and that would be the last thing airlines want. The laws of unintended consequences are on full display as airlines, passengers and government agencies juggle different priorities – revenue, convenience and safety. Passengers always hear that safety is the top priority in the industry. But many will also ask: at what cost?