Sudden US electronics ban endangers aircraft, passengers

The United States government appears, with no warning, to have put in place a ban on any electronic device larger than a cellphone being carried onboard flights between the US and — reportedly — over a dozen international destinations, airlines or nationals. The US administration has not confirmed to multiple outlets, including Runway Girl Network, which countries, nationals or airlines are affected.

This news is developing and often unconfirmed. RGN would not ordinarily report news like this without multiple confirmation, but the tactics of US authorities appear to be to restrict information and deny airlines and passengers the ability to plan ahead to reduce the significant safety risk to US-bound or US-originating aircraft.

Currently, the ban appears to cover 13 countries — which, specifically, remains unclear — for a period of 96 hours starting on 21 March. Yet late on 20 March passengers and airlines are already reported to have been seeing delays, additional screening, and unilateral changes to safety arrangements as a result.

It is entirely unacceptable that this information is not being clearly provided to airlines and passengers to enable them to comply with what appears to be a capricious directive from US authorities, unsupported by evidence or even a public statement, in the context of what US federal judges have termed a bias-motivated ban on travellers from Muslim countries.

Royal Jordanian Airlines was the first carrier to announce the move, with a notice also posted on Twitter — now deleted — that stated:

Following instructions from the concerned US departments, we kindly inform our dearest passengers departing to and arriving from the United States that carrying any electronic or electrical device on board the flight cabins is strictly prohibited.

Cellular phones and medical devices needed during the flight are excluded from the ban.

Prohibited devices, including for instance laptops, tablets, cameras, DVD players and electronic games…etc, can be carried in the checked baggage only.

This announcement is effective starting with March 21, 2017, and the instructions will be applied on the New York, Chicago, Detroit and Montreal flights, the last two destinations served by a combined flight.

Thank you for understanding. We wish you pleasant flights on board RJ.

Saudi Arabian flag carrier Saudia later released a statement regarding the matter:

Roughly translated, the statement says:

“Saudia would like to bring to the attention of its guests that the TSA has issued a new directive on all USA bound flights, banning the carriage of laptops, tablets, i.e. iPads/Kindles in the passenger cabin. They will be accepted only in the checked-in baggage.”

An affected airline confirmed to Runway Girl Network that the latest moves cover “directives by US authorities with immediate effect (96 hours) for passengers from thirteen countries”. It remains unclear, hours later, whether the directives are applied to nationals, to airlines, or to airports within countries.

Regardless, it is exceedingly difficult to regard this ban as based in flight safety fact or logic. Indeed, it would appear that the ban endangers aircraft, passengers, flight crew and bystanders on the ground. It is an established fact and current aviation safety recommendation that electronic devices that include lithium-ion batteries — the vast majority of modern electronics — not be checked into the hold for fire risk. Indeed, international organisation ICAO banned carriage of lithium-ion batteries as cargo a year ago. 

While there is an argument, made by a knowledgeable pilot to Runway Girl Network, that the risk from cascade combustion of tightly-packed lithium-ion cells is greater than the risk from dispersed lithium-ion batteries, that argument relies on a lack of bad actors (i.e., terrorists, etc.). As just one threat modality, if those bad actors know that their large, lithium-ion batteries will be checked as hold luggage, the attack vector is relatively clear. 

Indeed, the modality for any nefarious actor would appear to be relatively clear. As defence journalist Aaron Mehta said:

Addressing new and developing threats is, of course, by no means an exact science. But part of the deterrence by denial of effect is being clear about what the threat actually is.

Putting larger lithium-ion batteries in the hold makes it easier, not harder, for nefarious actors to bring an aircraft down. A cynical observer might suggest that the fact that these aircraft are largely operated by non-US carriers might be part of the (however flawed) threat assessment in this case.

It is unlikely that there is a real threat vector that suggests, in essence, that nefarious actors can pack enough threat contraband into a laptop or camera — contraband that cannot be detected by existing screenings that include a ‘turn this on and do something with it’ requirement — to have a material effect on an aircraft.

The crucial question for aviation safety is this: is it more safe to simply push all electronics into the hold, where firefighting is exponentially more difficult than in the cabin, without any additional screening, or to properly screen all electronics with potential voids that could cache threat contraband — via X-ray, explosive swabs, the “turn it on and do something with it” test, and so on? The answer seems clear.

At that point, any reasonable observer must question what the purpose is of this widespread and problematic directive, especially in the context of the administration’s clearly stated and legally unconstitutional desire to deter Muslim people and travellers from majority-Muslim states from entering the United States. The ban appears bi-directional: a traveller who is a US citizen travelling to an affected country must check their laptop in the same way as a traveller from an affected country travelling to the US must do.

On balance, and taking into account all the relevant information that is available, there are multiple reasons to suggest that this is an extension of the existing policies of deterring passengers from travel from Muslim-majority countries, and now affects travellers to those countries.

There may indeed be intelligence suggesting a short-term threat over the next four days, but if there are substantial gaps in existing screening in the US and elsewhere then surely this is not the way to go about it.

Making it easier for nefarious actors to bring down an aircraft does not make passengers or citizens on the ground any safer. It is a sad state of affairs when the aviation industry has to ask whether that is indeed the US’ intent.

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