Today I read yet another news article that indicates the US is considering a total ban on cabin laptops for any flight coming into the US. Whilst I see the need to protect against certain security exposures, placing a total ban seems both impractical and damaging to the US economy and reputation.
I travel a lot, perhaps around 10 times a year, all international and mostly long-haul. My travel is business-based as I have clients outside the UK and attend many non-UK events. As I work in IT, a laptop is an essential tool of work. I need to be able to work on the move, which means more than simply responding to emails. I’m continually writing documents, preparing presentations, testing software products and even writing code. I cannot imagine travelling without a laptop, which I now do even on family holidays (a result of being self-employed).
If the US bans laptops in the cabin, how will that affect me? First, I won’t be able to work on a flight. That might not seem like a bad thing, but with 10-12 hours in the air, using some of that time for work is really beneficial. On UK carriers there’s no opportunity to connect via WiFi, so airtime represents an opportunity to get things done undisturbed.
Then there’s the security issue. Hold luggage isn’t secure; the US requires luggage to be unlocked or to be secured with a TSA-compliant lock that US authorities can open if they wish. Your suitcase may as well be wide open. Bear in mind that all hold luggage is being screened, then ground staff know exactly who packed a laptop and who didn’t. It only takes one unscrupulous member of staff to start taking the occasional device from luggage and we have a problem.
So what is that problem? Well, first there’s one of insurance. How quickly will insurance companies move to limit their liability by removing laptops in the hold from coverage or limiting claims to one a year? Very quickly. There’s also the issue of data security. Who has encrypted the contents of their laptop? Is your laptop secured with a password? How easy would it be to defeat the password security and gain access to your data?
There’s also a major risk with placing laptops in the hold and that’s the stability of lithium-ion batteries. Most devices use Lithium-ion these days and we all know the batteries can become unstable if damaged. Look back at the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 ban, issues with headphones exploding and you can see the risk of hundreds of batteries could pose. Baggage handlers aren’t renowned for their care and diligence when placing bags into the hold of aircraft and it would only take one device to get damaged and risk taking an aircraft down with an on-board fire.
If we don’t take laptops, what are the alternatives? At least one airline is offering first class passengers a laptop to use in-flight, which is nice, but not hugely practical. It might be possible to place documents on a USB stick to edit them while in the air, but a temporary laptop isn’t going to give access to your email. Other than basic Office products, it’s also unlikely that a loan laptop will have a wide range of software tools. There’s also a housekeeping issue; will you remember to clean your files from the device when you return it? One other interesting scenario; using a shared device represents a security compromise. Imagine if some unscrupulous previous passenger has placed a key logger or other malware onto the shared laptop that either compromises your files or uploads them when the device accesses the Internet. Do you need to bring and install personal virus scanning software too?
Assuming we don’t have access to an on-board laptop, then we need to take our data with us. That’s potentially possible with portable media, or we could use a sync-n-share platform like Dropbox and web-based email. There’s also a need to find a device to use at the destination. That may or may not be easy. Of course you could just risk it and put your laptop or other device into the hold and see what happens.
I’m surprised we haven’t seen any kickback from the airline industry to these policies. There’s a huge risk to business travel if a ban like this were implemented. However the airline industry could solve the problem relatively easily. At check-in, business class desks could accept laptops into secure (electrically shielded) containers, locked by the airline before the flight, but kept in the cabin. After landing the cases are unlocked and the contents returned to the customer. With relatively few business passengers compared to economy, this could be offered as a free business/first service or a chargeable economy one.
If the ban does come into place, I’m sure the airlines will be creative to find a way of charging us all. In the meantime, ensure your devices are secure (have encryption and strong passwords), make sure your data is stored or backed up from your device (e.g. Dropbox, SaaS-based email) and check the options with your insurance company.