Airlines, Google speak frankly about electronics ban surprise, solutions

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Discussing the controversial inflight electronics ban at the APEX TECH conference on 13 June in Los Angeles, APEX CEO Joe Leader shared the stage with Google’s partner development manager, Max Coppin; Qatar Airways’ head of global sponsorships, CSR and In-Flight Entertainment/Connectivity, Babar Rahman; and JetBlue Technology Ventures’ managing director Raj Singh for what turned out to be a frank, surprisingly spirited session for those who managed to snare a seat in the standing-room only crowd.

Starting off by sharing a list of four potential solutions put forth by APEX during recent discussions with the US Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agency – which include improving and updating airport chemical sniffling facilities, hard turn-on stress tests, biometrics, and the use of Trusted Platform Modules (TPM) that Leader said would allow TSA and airline security to test laptops to see “full battery charge, full battery capacity, every element that is behind the computer, and [whether] or not the machine is real, fully intact [and/or] fully operational” – Leader then turned the stage over to the panelists who shared their own unique perspectives on the ban.

“We like to be prepared for all anomalies … but the ban did come as a surprise for all of us,” said Qatar’s Rahman. “The first thing for us was deciding how to tackle this situation and keep offering the experience that our passengers expect from us, and that is from on the ground to up in the air. So, we purchased hundreds of laptops and we immediately started offering them to our passengers. For our connected fleet we offered passengers free Wi-Fi. They already get Wi-Fi for free for a certain duration but we enhanced that duration as well to show that if you wanted to download any file from cloud servers or from emails, you [would be] able to do that … on a loaned laptop … and continue with your business as usual.”

“This was how we tackled the situation to ensure that we offered that same seamless service to our passengers and to also then show that there’s no disruption,” he continued. “Of course, in all real fact, there is only so much you can take on a USB or a thumb drive from your personal devices, but at least the impact is less than it would be for not being able to carry anything at all.” This point was driven home even further when Rahman confessed that he had actually finished up his APEX TECH presentation from a USB thumb drive on a loaned laptop during his 16-hour flight from Doha to LAX.

Not surprisingly, Google’s Coppin also had much to say on the topic of so-called loaner laptops, suggesting that the ban may even usher in a new way of thinking about hardware ownership.

“The challenge is, what can I do to mitigate the impact of not having my laptop? And then we started thinking about well, why do I need my laptop and not just a laptop. What’s personal about it?” said Coppin. “It’s kind of like the way that people think about their phones, you lose your phone and there’s that moment of absolute panic and then you realize that these days, it’s mostly just a phone because everything is backed up in the cloud, and as long as you can just get another device and sync everything back into it, it’s kind of just a SIM card that [you] need.”

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Google “grab-and-go” allows Google staffers to randomly log into and use any Chromebook internally, company-wide. Citing this approach to laptop sharing as an example of a solution that might work for some carriers, Coppin said Chromebooks, which already have public, shared device capabilities built into them, are ideally suited for such usage in-flight.

“We’re not exactly experts on the loading and unloading of devices on and off the aircraft, so, we’ve been working with a couple of companies there … but where we are, we believe, the experts, is very much what we can do to [augment] the passenger experience with this [Chromebook] device and at the moment we’re focusing very much on productivity, which is generally going to be Office documents … and then move on [from there],” explained Coppin.

But at the end of the day, it was JetBlue Technology Ventures’ Singh who offered perhaps the most outspoken assessment of the vagaries of the electronics ban.

It’s difficult to predict what happens next because, you know, I personally don’t understand why the laptop ban exists. I assume there’s a credible reason behind it, but nobody’s explained that to us. Likewise, if you put all those laptops in the hold, the opportunity for a lithium-ion [battery] fire is increased. So, it’s not clear to me. But in terms of being able to secure the aircraft, I actually met with a company yesterday and what they’re doing is applying machine intelligence to the scanners. It’s a well-known fact that no matter how good and how honestly a TSA agent tries, they miss a lot of things in bags and so what this does is say that we recognize the things that are in your bags and we have a list of approved and non-approved things and we can say that that thing in your bag is most likely not approved, so, you need to check it.

So, you’re not necessarily replacing the operator but you’re giving them another weapon than they can use to work out what’s good and what’s bad. And you need to continue to update that and the machine will keep on learning. So, those are things that can be applied to laptops or any device, and the good thing about laptops is that the internal components are quite standard, so, once you know what they are, you can compare, quite clearly, exactly what this laptop does versus another.

Singh is certainly not alone in his concern that safety is compromised when many lithium-ion batteries are placed in the cargo hold. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and ICAO recently highlighted the issue at IATA’s annual general meeting in Cancun, with representatives bemoaning that there was no real coordination or collaboration with industry when the ban affecting Muslim-majority countries was imposed, and as such, many airlines were caught off guard. Post implementation, industry’s concerns are safety-related, they said, with ICAO planning some batteries-in-the-hold tests.

During the APEX TECH meeting, Singh referenced the ongoing reliability of hard turn-on stress-tests and more classically old-school options like actually weighing the laptop – which he says was done regularly by airport security teams in the 1980s when he flew regularly in and out of Munich – as inexpensive quick-fix solutions that airports and carriers can implement right now.

“There’s even technology around the bad actors themselves,” said Singh. “The way that they walk and behave as they approach the perimeter, you can measure all of these things and there are solutions out there where you can install cameras in every single lightbulb that’s in an airport. So, we’re talking about thousands and tens-of-thousands of them … you can analyze people’s patterns of behavior and you don’t necessarily have to know their identity in order to do these things. So, yeah, there is a technology solution to all of these things, but the question is more in the way the ban was applied and the reasons behind it. You want to know more about that before you decide which solutions are the right ones.”

“In general, I believe the technology is out there to pretty much do all of these things more or less tomorrow,” added the JetBlue Technology Ventures executive. “But it will [ultimately] come down to how credible and large is the threat and how much money are we prepared to spent to address it.”

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