DHS may soon announce, or has already announced (depending on when you’re reading this), that the ban on personal electronic devices larger than a smartphone carried in an airline cabin will expand to the UK and throughout Europe.
Previous discussions on this topic have focused on the necessity of the ban from only certain countries, but not for domestic US flights, and a fundamental question about whether there is a difference between a bomb detonating in the cargo hold of an airplane versus the cabin. For review, two quick points:
- Throughout most of the world, carry-on baggage (also called cabin baggage) is screened using different technology than bags in the cargo hold (commonly called checked baggage or hold baggage). Checked baggage screening systems tend to be more thorough than their carry-on counterparts.
- From an explosive perspective, the advantages of a device in the cabin include ease of construction (as you don’t need a complex timing or barometric pressure switch or detonation system), and the need for a smaller amount of explosive material (in checked baggage, luggage and cargo in the hold provide some level of buffering from a blast). Also, in the cabin, you can decide where you want the device to be, just depending on your seat placement. For obvious reasons, seats over the wing and centerline fuel tanks are advantageous, as are window seats (less metal between the device and the outside air).
The significant downside to the ban from an airline and airport operational and passenger perspective is how severely it inhibits commerce and the ability of business to be conducted in flight, particularly on long-haul international routes. Costs to airline and airport operators are also beginning to increase to accommodate the additional checked baggage – these are not costs that are covered by the US government.
Now let’s add to why the ban may be expanding and other issues that this ban can create. First, the fundamental reason for the ban is that it’s long been known that when placing a bomb, you don’t want the bomb to look like a bomb. If it looks like something else, its less likely to be noticed. It’s also long been known that terrorists have desired to be able to put a bomb inside a laptop sized device as the electronics in such a device may be able to mask or stand-in for the electrical and mechanical connections necessary to detonate the device and plastic explosives in sheet form are easier to hide than the traditional large block that you see in many movies.
Next, why the ban only from certain countries and not the US? In addition to the increased complexity from a bomb in the cargo hold versus one on the cabin, quite simply, the screening equipment we use in the US is more effective at detecting the types of threats that have been identified than many other carry on baggage screening systems in the countries where the ban is in effect. Fundamentally, the systems are the same or similar – in many cases as there are only a few manufacturers of these systems. However, just as you can buy several different types of PCs or Macs, your airport can utilize several different types of x-ray detection equipment; although the shells may look the same, the capabilities may be quite different.
One complication that hasn’t been significantly addressed is the threat of a fire from a lithium battery powered laptop spontaneously igniting in the cargo hold, as they have done several times in an airline cabin. The vast majority of airline manufacturers (and the FAA and many other regulatory agencies throughout the world) require a two-level fire protection system in the cargo area of an aircraft. Smoke and fire detection sensors can both alert the pilots of a problem and can often automatically trigger an extinguishing agent in the cargo hold. These systems were not required prior to the crash of Valujet flight 592 into the Florida Everglades in 1996 but the crash was the triggering event. The fire bottle will provide an initial knock-down blast of extinguishing agent and then a steady flow of agent for up to an hour while the pilots descend.
What’s the solution to the ban? In one case, Qatar Airways has announced it will lend passengers a laptop to use on the flight, and return it at their destination. A passenger could then use a USB or SD memory device to temporarily transfer the documents they need to work on. But that solution poses another problem for passengers: once something is on a computer, it never really leaves unless you take extraordinary measures to wipe the drive.
The real challenge is whether the laptop ban will expand to the US, and how long the current ban will last. In all likelihood, the ban will last until the threat has gone away, or the affected countries upgrade their technology – and the threat is not going away. If the ban extends to US domestic flights, then it means we are not doing an effective enough job of keeping up with the evolving threat, and we are attempting to make aviation fit security, instead of security fitting aviation.
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