DHS 'likely' to expand laptop ban on flights

Workarounds already underway, including loaner laptops, but it will require worker adjustments

Airport departure sign with airplane flying over
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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is considering expanding existing bans on laptops and other large electronic devices on flights, a situation that could pose a nightmare for many business travelers.

DHS spokesman David Lapan said via email early Thursday that "no decisions have been made on expanding the restriction on large electronic devices in aircraft cabins; however it is under consideration."

He added that there was no announcement of any expansion on Thursday, contrary to some reports, saying, "When there are changes, we'll announce that. DHS continues to evaluate the threat environment and will make changes when necessary to keep air travelers safe," Lapan added.

DHS in March ordered that passengers coming to the U.S. from 10 airports in the Middle East and Africa were required to check into the baggage hold any personal electronics larger than a smartphone. At the time, the agency said, it was reacting to the threat that terrorists could smuggle explosive devices in various consumer items.

Expanding the ban to and from other countries, including European countries, is being weighed by DHS, according to various reports. There is also an internal debate at DHS about what to do about lithium batteries inside devices stored in the baggage hold of a plane that could overheat and catch fire, causing a catastrophic explosion, according to Reuters and others.

Expanding the DHS ban would require a herculean adjustment for many business travelers, some accustomed to writing and editing reports and presentations for hours on long flights. Suggested workarounds include the ability to check out a lightweight laptop or Chromebook near an airport gate to use just for that flight. It would then be checked in after all data was erased at the end of the flight.

Expanding a laptop flight ban would produce a "major backlash from the mobile worker traveler," predicted Gartner analyst Werner Goertz. He said airlines could install workarounds to support smartphones with seat-back displays, but at a "huge" upgrade cost.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said having to place a laptop into checked baggage alone will pose a worker revolt. "Who in their right mind would allow their laptop to be put into checked baggage?" he asked.

Expanding the large electronics ban "would be a huge imposition to business travelers," said Gartner analyst Avivah Litan. She is often on long flights and works on a laptop and other devices. "Working on planes is a must for most travelers who use the time to prepare for meetings at their destinations," she added.

Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies, said flying without a laptop or similar device "would be a huge issue for me." She uses a 9.7-in. iPad Pro instead of full laptop, but that would be banned also.

"I have everything on that device for both work and play," Milanesi added. "If you travel for work to Europe from California, you have at least 12 hours to do work, read books, watch movies and more. While I could do all those things on a phone, the experience would not quite be the same." Analyzing numbers and creating and editing presentations cannot easily be done on a phone with a 5-in. or 6-in. display, she said.

Milanesi said some airlines are already providing 'approved' laptops near the gate, but it requires more steps for travelers. Qatar Airways and Etihad, among others, are now offering business travelers on some U.S.-bound flights loaner iPads or laptops.

"If you were to fully embrace the cloud and could just download your documents [to a loaner] before you boarded, it would alleviate some of the issues. But compatibility of the OS might be an issue for some apps," she said. "Windows Office would work all-around, which would make most working travelers happy."

Litan said the "most logical workaround" would be for the Transportation Safety Administration to do more pre-screening of devices to exempt travelers from the bans.

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, said some other ideas are probably coming. "It would be a challenge but I think we'll see some ingenious workarounds," he said. One is to connect a smartphone for its display to a Bluetooth-ready keyboard.

DHS didn't offer suggestions for business travelers to adjust to possible laptop bans onboard, but has stressed the security concerns it faces. In a recent statement, DHS Secretary John Kelly said the ban would "likely expand."

Here's the full statement Kelly made that was re-issued by spokesman Lapan today:

"Our policies are based on our intelligence. As we learn about the latest threats to the American people, we turn what we know into what we do.

"Recently, based on intelligence, I banned electronics bigger than a cell phone on some commercial flights to the United States. This program will likely expand given the sophisticated threats aviation faces. This was not a move against any country, or ethnic group, or religion, or foreign air carrier as some have irresponsibly alleged, but, rather, an attempt to safeguard lives.

"That ban, and the intelligence that drove it, demonstrates that commercial aviation continues to be a prime target for terrorists. I do not know why they are so intent on killing innocent men, women, and children, but I will not hesitate to take any measures within my power to save lives.

"Today, the intelligence suggests they're trying to hide explosives in electronic devices, but the research and developers of numerous terrorist networks and cells are relentless in their attempts to produce the "silver bullet" of aviation destruction. Before electronic devices we had the printer cartridge bomber, before that the shoe and underwear bombers, the explosive liquids plot, and the box-cutter hijackers of 9/11. They never stop and neither can we."

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