Category Archives: Policies and Procedures

Revisiting the Electronics Ban

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

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

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The Maginot Line Revisited

(Part 5 in a 5 part series that takes a look at whether we are safer since 9/11) Much has happened since I started this short series in August 2016: We have a new President, there’s been an active shooter at another US airport and TSA has lost its Administrator and is now floating rudderless… Continue Reading

Man Forcibly Removed From Airline Due To Overbooking

The recent video of a passenger being pulled off an airplane in Chicago is disturbing, to say the least. While we don’t know all the sides to the story yet, there should never be a situation in which a non-violent individual gets to the point of having to be dragged off an airplane. Ultimately, while… Continue Reading

The TSA and the 13-year-old at DFW

Here’s the deal: TSA is correct in everything they posted about the pat-down that has gone viral. It looked like all procedures were followed – it still sucks they have to do it, but I understand the threat. It looked like the pat-down was even a bit more thorough than normal (I’ve had several too),… Continue Reading

Laptop Travel Ban

Early on Tuesday, March 21st, the TSA posted an emergency amendment to its carry-on policy prohibiting electronics larger than a cell phone in the cabin on flights from a number of airports. The UK announced a similar ban later the same day. This type of restriction has been implemented before, usually when there is real… Continue Reading

Get Out!: Airport Evacuations, Protecting Lives and Reputations During Unplanned Events

(This article, written by myself and Lori Beckman, originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Aviation Security International Magazine, and is reprinted here with permission. To view the article in its original format, click HERE.) How do we differentiate between an evacuation and an escape? Airports have long had evacuation plans for a variety of… Continue Reading

Security breach at JFK

Unfortunately, incidents like the one that occurred earlier this week at JFK are not a terribly rare occurrence. The vast majority of these types of breaches are relatively harmless but they do reveal a gap in the system: people. As long as there are people in the system, there will always be a chance for error, but… Continue Reading

Protecting the Airport’s Public Areas

By Jeffrey C. Price “The Airport Writer” In the wake of the Ft. Lauderdale active shooter attack, three ‘solutions’ are beginning to emerge. Unfortunately, many of these solutions will provide the public a sense of safety, and politicians will appear to be doing “something”, but the measures could cost a lot of money and the… Continue Reading

EgyptAir Flight MS181: Don’t take our eye off the ball, because there is a threat to worry about here.

By Jeff Price, Professor MSU Denver and lead author, Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats There have been a lot of stories in the media about this EgyptAir hijacking that “calls into question” airline and airport security in Egypt. But let’s not take our eye off the ball – let’s continue to stay… Continue Reading

15th Annual AAAE/DHS/TSA Aviation Security Summit, Part III

The big issue this year continues to be the insider threat / employee security. Legislative staffers visited with industry leadership at the Summit about the various laws attempting to make their way through the House or the Senate, directed at improving airport security. A significant piece of legislation to keep an eye on is H.R.3102… Continue Reading