That Bewildering Laptop Ban – Bloomberg – Bloomberg

When the U.S. government announced a ban on carry-on laptops and other gadgets for certain flight routes in March, the policy made little sense. In the months since, it has only grown more bewildering.

At the moment, the ban applies to large electronic devices on flights originating at 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa. It may be expanded to other airports. Or it may not be.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security indicated that the ban might be extended to Europe, then that it wouldn’t be, then that it might include all international flights, then that it wouldn’t, then that everything was “still on the table.” This month, DHS Secretary John Kelly said the ban could soon include 71 more foreign airports. Then he took it back. The department’s current intentions are anyone’s guess.

Such confusion is perhaps understandable for a new administration grappling with a complicated problem. But a continuation of it will only cost the airline industry time and money, potentially jeopardize security, and unnecessarily alarm and agitate the traveling public. The White House should start by addressing a few concerns.

One perplexity is the list of airports in question. Some of them have dubious reputations for security, but others — such as Dubai International Airport — are exemplars. Offering terrorists a public list of airports to avoid hardly seems prudent. And in an age of borderless terrorism, doesn’t a universal ban make more sense than a selective one?

More unnervingly, the policy creates new risks of its own. Prime among them is that forcing passengers to check their laptops means concentrating lots of potentially flammable lithium batteries in cargo, beyond the reach of the flight crew in case of a fire. That risk isn’t theoretical: Such batteries are thought to have been a factor in at least two cargo-plane crashes in recent years. Does the administration have a plan in mind for mitigating those risks? 

Then there’s the cost. Added security means longer lines, more delays and more missed connections. Companies are likely to forgo business travel if their employees can’t work en route. The airline industry reckons that expanding the ban to Europe could cost travelers more than $1 billion a year. A global ban could cost carriers $3.3 billion a year. Is there anything the government can do — through technological improvements, say — to alleviate those burdens?

Finally, can the administration say why it’s pursuing this policy? In the absence of a clear rationale, grim conjecture has filled the void. Some have speculated that this was Trump’s “Muslim ban” under another guise. Others think it’s a protectionist measure, meant to give U.S. carriers — which don’t fly directly to the affected airports — an advantage over their Middle Eastern rivals in competing for business travelers. For an issue as important as airline security, such speculation is corrosive.

There are some indications, not confirmed by the government, that the U.S. may be responding to new threats. In that case, the safety of passengers comes first. But remember that one reason terrorists target airplanes is to provoke a costly overreaction by the authorities, and that balancing costs and benefits is essential. That’s why it’s important that the White House articulate a better rationale for this ban, clearer rules for companies and travelers, and some sense of what its intentions are.

    –Editors: Timothy Lavin, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at
    davidshipley@bloomberg.net
    .

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