Even before attempting any new attack on an airplane, terrorists could be on the brink of inflicting the most serious disruption of air travel since the 9/11 attacks.
If the Department of Homeland Security goes ahead with plans to ban laptops from the cabins of all flights from Europe to the U.S., the economic impact on airlines will far exceed that caused by previous measures, like removing shoes at security and the ban on carrying liquids in hand luggage.
The laptop ban would most affect those who are the most lucrative market for the airlines flying the Atlantic, business and first class passengers. These are often professionals like corporate managers, lawyers, accountants, scientists, and media producers whose laptops contain proprietary or confidential information that their companies will not allow to go into checked baggage for fear of being lost, damaged, or stolen.
The U.S. is the second-largest business-travel market after China. Business- and first-class passengers produce at least two-thirds of the revenue on any transatlantic flight. In effect, the fares paid by passengers at the front end allow the airline to sell the cheap seats at the back.
If a laptop ban diverts top echelon executives to the rapidly growing use of time-share corporate jets where they can use their devices, the airlines would lose not just the immediate revenue from the seats but the revenue generated by high-end loyalty programs through their branded credit cards. Some companies have already decided that in the event of a ban their executives will ship devices ahead via couriers like Fedex and UPS.
Michael McCormick, executive director of the Global Business Travel Association said last week, “The question remains whether the targeted application of policies banning personal electronics is an effective measure to reduce the risk of terrorism.”
According to travel industry insiders, European officials are so alarmed by the probable economic costs of the ban that they are demanding Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly provides them with a more convincing case for the measures than they have so far received.
After a conference call on Friday between U.S. and European officials, a spokeswoman for the European Union said they had invited Kelly and other officials for talks “at a political and expert level to jointly assess the potential risks and review future measures.” That meeting is taking place in Brussels this week.
EU transport commissioner Violeta Bulc was more explicit about their concerns when she said she had “pointed to the safety implications of putting a large number of electronic devices in the aircraft hold.”
As The Daily Beast reported last week, this worry arises from a well-documented risk to airplanes posed by fires that start in the lithium-ion batteries of personal devices, particularly in tablets and laptops. This risk would actually be increased if laptops placed in checked baggage were concentrated in a dedicated section of the cargo hold, where a runaway fire in one device could easily spread to others to eventually cause a fire that the current fire suppression systems in cargo holds cannot inhibit.
Steve Landells, the flight safety specialist at the British Airline Pilots’ Association, BALPA, said in a statement: “If these devices are kept in the hold the risk is that if a fire occurs the results can be catastrophic…we urge the authorities to carefully assess the additional fire risk from storing personal electronic devices in the hold to ensure we’re not solving one problem by creating a worse one."
Some intelligence experts also believe that there is an underlying logical flaw in the proposed laptop ban. They say that an expert terrorist bomb-maker like the notorious Ibrahim al-Asiri of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would assume that the DHS’s decision that laptops should be kept out of cabins indicates that the screening technology used in European airports, both for carry-on bags and checked luggage, can be defeated by a small explosive charge concealed in a battery.
The terrorists would simply move the threat from one part of the airplane to another by having a suicide bomber check in the weaponized laptop, which could be detonated in the cargo hold either by a smart phone or a timer, and bring down the airplane.
In March a former British army intelligence officer told The Daily Beast that such battery bombs likely use the same explosive, PETN, used by Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber who attempted to destroy a flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001. Just 100 grams of PETN can destroy a car.
Cargo-carrying airlines have developed new containers for shipments of lithium-ion batteries that can contain a fire so that it cannot endanger an airplane, but these containers are too heavy to be used on passenger jets. As part of a program to develop lighter but bomb-proof containers, an international team of scientists at the University of Sheffield in England have successfully tested a new cargo-hold lining that acts as flexible membrane rather than rigid wall. This, however, is only a prototype and it would take years to equip airline fleets with the technology.
Beyond the loss of elite passengers the airlines and the travel industry are concerned about the effect of a laptop ban as a serious irritant to passengers on this summer’s transatlantic tourist traffic. There are more than 3,000 flights a week bringing Europeans to America. Eighty percent of this traffic is on just four carriers: American Airlines, Delta, United, and the International Airline Group that combines British Airways and Iberia. Lufthansa and Air France/KLM are the remaining major players.
The airports that handle most of these flights are London Heathrow, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam Schipol. If the laptop ban goes into effect these will no doubt be the setting for a summer of passenger high discontent.