U.K. bans laptops in airliner cabins after terror arrests

Laptops and other electronic devices will have to be checked in

U.K. authorities banned passengers from taking electronic items into airplane cabins following the arrests of 21 people today in connection with an alleged plot to blow up aircraft midflight en route to the U.S.

Other items, including liquids and food, are also banned from airplane cabins, with few exceptions. The new rules apply for all flights leaving or transferring through the U.K., the British government said.

The U.S. government also banned liquids of all forms, including beverages and personal hygiene products, from being carried onto flights. All liquids must be placed in checked baggage. Additional information on heightened security measures in the U.S. can be found online.

Laptop computers, iPods and cell phones must be placed in checked baggage on flights out of the U.K. Airline passengers have become accustomed to additional checks following the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Airport security checks require that laptops must be removed from their cases and X-rayed. But the new security measures in the U.K. could mean an increased chance of theft or damage to laptops and devices that must be checked and not carried on.

From January through June of this year, U.S. passengers filed nearly 1.8 million reports concerning mishandled baggage, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation statistics.

There are ways to reduce the risk of damage or the impact of a lost laptop, said Richard Starnes, a computer security expert and president of the U.K. branch of the worldwide Information Systems Security Association. Ideally, laptop users should already be following such guidelines, he said. The guidelines include the following:

  • Back up data: Companies may have regular schedules for backing up data, but personal users may be less rigorous.
  • Passwords: Protecting a laptop with passwords is imperative. Users could configure their laptops to prompt them for an additional password during the BIOS process, when a computer first starts and checks its hardware configuration, Starnes said.
  • Encryption: The data on a machine may be worth more to a thief or hacker than the hardware itself. High-profile losses of laptops have raised awareness about encryption, another way to ensure a lost laptop doesn't have crushing consequences for a business.
  • Insurance: Data may be lost, but there will be compensation for the lost hardware if you have insurance. Airlines for domestic U.S. flights usually limit their liability for baggage to $2,800 per passenger, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The value of a top-grade laptop could exceed that limit.

Compensation for international flights is determined by an international agreement and is subject to currency fluctuations. As of February, maximum baggage compensation for international trips was about $1,400 per passenger, according to AirSafe.com, a Web site run by aviation expert Todd Curtis.

But a laptop faces other in-flight challenges, even if it isn't lost. Baggage handlers aren't kind to luggage, and notebook computers could be vulnerable to fatal bumps and tumbles.

Generally, the hard drives in laptops are designed to endure a 3-foot drop on concrete when turned off, Starnes said. A hard-shell case would offer more protection, at least while the laptop is in a baggage hold, he said. 

Related News & Opinion: