Banning Electronics, and What That Means For The Future of Flying

Recently, the US put several foreign airlines with routes to the United States on notice that electronics such as laptops must be banned from the cabin. If this issue spreads and is not addressed immediately it will be a crushing blow to aviation, courtesy of a system that has failed to keep up with the evolving threats.

In the late 1980s, when laptops first entered the scene, those who carried them through security were required to turn them on to make sure they didn’t carry a bomb. You didn’t put them through an x-ray machine at the time because no one really knew if that would cause damage. By 9/11 all laptops were going through the x-ray machines and we assumed that any concealed device would be readily found – as long as we separated the laptop from the bag. Looks like that’s not entirely true but it seems it depends on where you’re at and the screening measures that are being applied.

In the US, carry-on bags are screened by standard dual-view x-ray machines, which are better than the pre 9/11 models, but still not where they should be. Checked bags are screened (in the US) by explosive detection systems (EDS) using a medical grade CAT scan machine that slices, dices and analyzes each bag as it comes through, and it can detect explosive elements. Thus, checked bag screening technology is better able to spot a bomb than carry-on screening technology. . . in the US.

Besides detection, what is the difference between a bomb in the cabin versus one in the cargo hold with checked baggage? The answer is that it’s easier to build and detonate a bomb sitting in your lap than one sitting in the cargo hold. In the hold, you have to either command detonate with a remote device that you hope works, or set a timing or barometric pressure-type switch, and then hope that works, and that the flight isn’t delayed and the thing goes off while you’re sitting on the ramp – or that some baggage handler doesn’t inadvertently detonate it while tossing your bag into the hold.

The challenge with many of the airlines that are being affected by the ban is that not everyone in the world uses the same types of x-ray and EDS machines that the US uses. Keep in mind, we used to really be bad at this but since 9/11, unbelievably, we’ve actually set a pretty good standard. That said, several years ago the industry looked at whether we should install the EDS machines at the passenger screening checkpoints but there are all sorts of footprint issues, power requirement problems, floor strength issues, and so forth that you don’t get with the x-ray machines. Seeing as the threat continues to change, perhaps its time to revisit that concept.

The fact here is that we have to make a security system that fits aviation, not an aviation system that fits security. Being forced to check your expensive electronics will mean there’s a higher chance you’ll have to go to eBay when you get to your destination to buy your own laptop back. Bag theft rates went up during the initial electronics ban (coinciding with the liquid ban in August 2006 in Great Britain), along with theft of intellectual property from the information on everyone’s stolen hard drives, along with identity theft. While passengers can put up with a lot of stupid human tricks at the checkpoint, they need the ability to continue to work once they are past it. Not only is the business traveler – who, incidentally, funds most of commercial aviation – losing time on the aircraft, they are losing the one to two hours of waiting for their flight to depart, or worse, losing one, three, or six hours or more of lost productivity during a layover. There is a lost opportunity cost, and lost real costs to that lost time.

The industry must fix this loophole quickly and effectively. TSA, under Neffenger, was headed the right direction – first by actually training their TSO’s in a professional manner, and second, by envisioning a future screening process that doesn’t look like yet another iteration of the old process. Technology has to step up. Training has to go to the next level so that TSA personnel understand how the entire system works, and TSA management has to make the effort to an integral part of the airport security team and not the step-children they are so often considered by the rest of the airport and airline security community.


To read more of my posts on aviation security, click HERE.


4 Responses to Banning Electronics, and What That Means For The Future of Flying

  1. The paragraph above explaining why EDS machines are not used at passenger screening areas fails to mention that they are far more costly than the X-ray machines used there which are designed to detect metals. When I was responsible with security matters at the now defunct Association of European Airlines more than a decade ago, EDS machines cost was about 100.000 Euros each.

  2. Well said Jeff. I doubt the traveller (esp. the Business traveler) will tolerate this and hence a mass exodus to other forms of transportation. Could be a big impact on airline and,of course, airport revenues,etc…..

  3. I find your comments on the banning of laptops in the cabin of designated aircraft carriers operating services to the US somewhat confusing. I consider there is more to this unwarranted increased security measure than stated; as US carriers operating similar routes are excluded from requiring passengers to place their laptops in checked baggage. Therefore, one can only conclude, that based on threat and intelligence information that no passenger flying from the designated foreign States on US carriers are a concern. Further, as screening of departing passengers is carried out at the point of departure, what relevance does this have to do with the TSA? I acknowledge that US Federal Agents do impose by their presence and activities for flights to the US from certain overseas airports. You raise concerns about the theft of electronic equipment and subsequent loss of intellectual property; and yes that is a critical issue as items removed by unscrupulous means at airport baggage handling facilities globally is significant. In regards to the TSA, it’s not that long ago that reports on covert testing of detection capabilities at number of US security screening checkpoints controlled by the TSA were identified as being defective; could that be caused by a technological shortfall; or more directed at Human Factor inefficiencies?

  4. Thanks for this Jeff. What strikes me is that this measure depends on the bad guys not being sophisticated enough to build a hold bomb, or on our screening finding it. Not a safe assumption…have they forgotten this whole ‘industry’ started that way with Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in 1988 – nearly 30 years ago?

    What also strikes me is that a remotely detonated device could be detonated before loading. If a suspect item is found and the owner of the bag is collared by the police, he can detonate it at that point, within the airside area.

    I have long felt that the regulations focus on airports stopping a terrorist or bomb getting on board an aircraft, and not enough on protecting the airport and the public. An in-flight explosion makes a spectacular victory for the bad people, but I would imagine an explosion at a Heathrow or JFK terminal creates longer-lasting damage for aviation services, the industry and national economies.

    Sadly the various recent airport landside attacks show how weak we are in protection. Escalation from handgun to bomb as the weapon of choice for such attacks seems inevitable to me, following the well-trodden path of aircraft attacks. We should be doing the research and development now so that next generation airports and terminals have the best possible protection built in not added on too late.

    “we have to make a security system that fits aviation, not an aviation system that fits security” should be every legislator’s vision.

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