The TSA has banned passenger flying from ten specific airports to the US from taking any electronic items larger than a cell phone into the cabin with them. The airports are in Cairo, Istanbul, Kuwait City, Doha, Casablanca, Amman, Riyadh, Jeddah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
The UK followed with a similar but not identical ban. They have imposed the restriction on Cairo, Istanbul, Amman and Jeddah, and also added Tunis and Beirut. On the other hand, they exempted Kuwait City, Doha, Casablanca, Riyadh, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Canada is now considering a similar ban.
Not a single part of this ban makes sense.
The Timing of Its Implementation
First, let’s look at how it was introduced. It was introduced with advance warning – first secretly to the airlines, then publicly to everyone – us, and terrorists too. Are we to believe that this new risk is a future risk that won’t start for a few more days? If you were a terrorist and read that your new super-method for smuggling bombs on planes was about to be curtailed, would you just give up, or would you quickly make use of the security flaw in the almost week of remaining time before the new measures came into effect?
Like so many TSA measures, they only work if the terrorists are stupider than the TSA. Are you willing to bet your life on that?
The Target Airports
We are told there are security weaknesses at ten airports, Not eleven, and not nine. Only these ten airports have security vulnerabilities.
If that is true, why not simply require security to be improved at those ten airports? And look at the airports in question – some of them might be a bit suspect, but two in particular are far from being third world airports with third world security.
Dubai – one of the largest and most sophisticated airports in the world.
Abu Dhabi – one of the most elite airports, anywhere, due to it having a forward screening/security service that allows people to be screened by both US Immigration and US Customs before they fly from Abu Dhabi, making their long flight to the US into what is in effect a domestic US flight, with no further security checks upon arrival.
If Abu Dhabi has been given this extraordinary endorsement, how can it simultaneously be one of the ten most insecure airports in the entire world? Truly – stop and consider this for a minute. You can not reconcile these two facts.
It isn’t just the airports that provide security, the airlines have a watching brief, too. Do you really think that Emirates or Etihad would allow any type of lax security at their home hubs that might endanger their airplanes and their international reputation for safe travel?
What is the strange risk factor at these ten airports that is missing at other airports? Is it the brand of metal detectors and X-ray machines? All airports, the world over, seem to use similar equipment from a small handful of suppliers.
Perhaps the implication is the terrorists have infiltrated the airport security staff at these ten locations. But if the problem is untrustworthy staff, why is the risk limited to electronic items only? If security screeners will look the other way, why not just stick a bomb in your carry-on bag with no need to disguise it at all?
Why are the US and UK unable to agree on which airports are the risky ones?
Why Only to the US (and UK) (and Canada)
As we are increasingly seeing, the ‘good news’ (for us in the US) is that these days, terrorists no longer only hate the US. They really seriously hate France, and Belgium and Germany are far from popular too. Then there’s Russia, another country they hate with a demonstrable fury.
Why aren’t these other countries also considered to be at risk?
As for our own degree of risk, why doesn’t the US issue a ‘travel advisory’ warning US citizens about all travel, everywhere, on all airlines? The State Department is very quick to issue global travel advisories for general levels of ordinary risk, but why no new travel advisory about this?
The airlines are scrambling to respond to something that will definitely impact on their passenger numbers. Emirates has said they will let passengers keep their larger electronics until boarding the plane, at which point they will all be collected, stored in a special hold in the freight area of the plane, and returned direct to the passengers at the US destination.
That is commendable, but from a security point of view, it is utterly unrealistic. How can they rely on passengers to hand in all their devices? Or what would stop a passenger from, once they are in the secure part of the airport, removing some explosive device from their large portable electronic device, hiding it in their carry on, then surrendering the electronic device to Emirates while boarding their flight and with the actual explosive still in their carry-on?
Or will they require all passengers to go through another complete security screening prior to boarding the plane (please say this isn’t the case!).
The Connecting Flight Loophole
So, there you are in Dubai. Imagine you are a terrorist wishing to smuggle your bomb onto the next flight DXB-NYC. Happily, this new security measure has prevented you from doing so.
Okay, certainly you could simply take the Emirates flight that goes to Rome or wherever and then on to New York, thereby avoiding this new airport problem at Dubai. But maybe you don’t want to do that. There’s another solution for you, too.
Get on the plane at the airport it flew from to arrive into Dubai, prior to flying on to New York. When the flight lands in Dubai, simply hide your device in the seat back pocket in front of you. If you’re in a business or first class seat, you’ll have all sorts of other nooks and crannies to hide things in, too.
And now, get off the plane, then get back on again, and meet up with your bomb once more. Unless we’re going to have extremely thorough cabin searches between flights, this is – and always has been – a loophole just waiting to be exploited.
From the Frying Pan – Into the Fire?
Okay, let’s assume (huge big assumption) that this new ‘security’ measure will confound the terrorists. Bravo.
But there’s another sort of danger we’ve now created. Our laptops, and all our electronic devices, have moderate to large-sized Li-ion battery packs inside them. And now they’re in our suitcases, in the cargo hold, which is ‘safely’ inaccessible during flight. But is being inaccessible the same as being safe? Let’s think some more about that.
And, as you also know, these things sometimes explode, and burn with an intense heat, for an extended period. Just like an explosive, but in slow motion (in simple terms, an explosive is merely a ‘fast’ fire).
If this happens in the passenger cabin, someone notices. People can respond, and can contain and control the conflagration, with special ‘burn bags’ and fire extinguishers. But if it happens in the cargo hold, three hours away from everywhere over the ocean? What do you do then?
One of the things that can encourage a battery explosion is heating it up. That isn’t likely to happen when a device is off (but other risks like vibration still exist) but how many times have you thought you turned your laptop off, only to discover, when you pull it out of your carry-on bag an hour later, that everything is quite warm? I’ll confess to doing that, occasionally. Not often, but now multiply ‘not often’ by ‘200 passengers’ and your risk has just escalated greatly.
Plus, when packed in a suitcase, you are surrounding the laptop with insulation, leaving nowhere for a heat buildup to go than back into the laptop itself.
Let’s also consider what if there truly is a real bomb, but now in the cargo hold instead of the passenger cabin. It is true that if it is in the middle of the middle suitcase in the middle of the cargo hold, tightly packed in with other suitcases just waiting to absorb the force of an explosion, well, that sort of sounds safe, doesn’t it.
Except that, remember Pan Am 103 – the 747 that blew up over Scotland in 1988 due to a bomb hidden inside a radio, inside a suitcase, inside the cargo hold. Ooops.
Now some people would have us believe that our suitcases are more thoroughly inspected than our carry-on bags. I’ll call BS on that. Just think, for example, we are not allowed to have our laptop inside our carry-on bag (sometimes I’ve had to remove iPads too) because they block x-rays and ‘hide’ whatever is behind them. Now think about a suitcase, with a jumble of electronics, and much more visual ‘noise’ from everything inside it – are you going to tell me that the person somewhere out of sight in the airport is going to be more carefully checking every single suitcase than is the case for the person on public display at the security point, checking carry-on bags?
Let’s put that into the ‘unlikely’ category, shall we.
How Big is Dangerous?
The US has decided that anything larger than a cell phone is dangerous. But how big is a cell phone? Even if we ignore the old ‘brick’ style phones of yester-year, there is a wide variation in size between the largest phablets with 5.7″ and even larger screens, and the tiniest little pocket compact phones with 3″ screens.
At least, if you have a phone, it is a phone. But now for the equivalent size of other devices. What does ‘no bigger than a phone’ mean?
The UK have specified the maximum dimensions they’ll allow. 6.3″ x 3.7″ x 0.6″. That at least adds a measure of clarity to their side of things; why can’t they and the US agree on a consistent definition?
Also, what happens if a device is smaller in two dimensions but fractionally larger in the third dimension? Its total volume would be less than the maximum, so in theory it should be safe, but our guess is the rule is ‘all three dimensions must each be less than the stated measures’. I have devices that are much shorter and narrower, but their thickness slightly exceeds the UK maximum. So although there is less total space inside to fit anything, they would probably not be accepted (because who is going to have the time to figure out internal volumetric capacities while being screened!)?
One does have to wonder, though, what is the magic of this set of dimensions that allows items smaller to be safe but items even a fraction larger to suddenly become deadly? Surely a terrorist could travel with two or three or four ‘cell phone sized’ devices and simply combine them for one large explosion?
Of course that is possible, and could readily be done given a few minutes privacy in an onboard toilet.
So is this a totally useless ban? Probably, yes. Here next is an interesting related question.
Are Small Bombs Really Dangerous?
Now for an interesting point. How small a bomb is ‘safe’ and how large a bomb is ‘dangerous’? Sure, a small bomb alongside a plane’s hull could blow a similarly small hole in the plane, but would that automatically lead to the plane ‘exploding’, crashing, and burning?
Actually, no. There have been a number of cases where passenger jets have suffered some sort of hull damage and survived. The most spectacular of these is the Aloha 737, pictured above. On 1988, on an interisland flight, metal fatigue caused a huge forward section of the fuselage to rip off the plane entirely. The plane landed safely.
Another example is the United Airlines 747 in 1989. This had a cargo door and a section of associated fuselage rip off, but the plane again landed safely.
That’s not to say there is no risk, and for sure, you’d not want to be seated next to a terrorist and their iPad sized bomb. And there are reports that some plane crashes may have been caused by bombs that were only slightly larger – filling a typical Coke can, for example.
We definitely should protect against such risks any which way we can.
So, Will it Work?
Is a ban on everything other than small cell phone sized electronics the best way to do so? Although indeed very inconvenient to honest passengers, will it impede terrorists who are determined to bring destruction to a plane? Almost certainly not.
Please read our matching article for information and suggestions on what to do if you’re on a flight that forbids electronics larger than a phone.