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May 102017

Is having a laptop in an aircraft cabin about to become as universally banned as in-cabin smoking?  Increasingly, it seems the answer may be yes.

In late March, the US government banned passengers who were flying to the US from ten specific airports from taking any electronics larger than a cell phone into the passenger cabin with them.  The UK followed suit with a similar but not identical ban, adding four additional airports but exempting six of the original ten on the US list.  We wrote about it, here and elsewhere.

The strange nature of the ban, the similarly strange way it was introduced, and its timing, juxtaposed alongside President Trump’s attempts to restrict visitors to the US and the pressure from the ‘Big Three’ US airlines to sanction their Gulf carrier competitors caused some commentators to suggest this was not a true ban based on valid security fears, but rather it was nothing more than a way of giving the US airlines what they wanted.

We feared that the ban was for real reasons, just maladroitly introduced, and we’ve been waiting subsequently for ‘the other shoe to drop’ – ie an extension of the ban, eventually to every airport in the world.  A couple of weeks ago, we noticed a ‘trial balloon’ announcement that the US was considering extending the ban, and there have been two more examples this week – first on CBS, then Time, and then on the not quite so unimpeachable Daily Beast, with the Daily Beast headline being particularly alarming – ‘US to Ban Laptops in All Cabins of Flights from Europe, Officials Say’.

Fortunately, the actual story wasn’t quite so definite, but as we’ve observed all along, if there truly is a new vulnerability that terrorists could exploit (and, yes, there definitely is), then limiting the electronics ban to only ten airports is a farcical act which assumes terrorists wouldn’t respond by first traveling to an airport with no such electronics ban in place before flying on to the US with their hidden bomb-in-a-battery.

The stories so far are focused on the ban extending to all flights from Europe (including the UK), but if/when that happens, it surely is only a matter of short time before people realize that terrorists could simply fly first to another airport in Asia or Africa or anywhere else.  So we expect to see the ban extend until it covers all flights, and both to and from the US.

We’d been thinking we’d wait until an extension of the ban was formally announced before saying anything further, but then realized that, when such a ban does get expanded, for some of us, we’ll already be on our travels somewhere, and it will not be so practical to try and respond to a ban at that point.  So we probably all need to start planning for this to happen, possibly without warning, any time now.

Will the ban only be on laptops, or on all portable electronics larger than a cell-phone.  The latest various articles talk only about laptop bans, but they also refer to the earlier bans primarily as laptop bans, too.  There’s a huge difference between ‘only’ being deprives of our laptop and also missing out on our Kindle readers and tablets, too.  So that’s a detail we’ll have to anxiously wait and see about.

If we have to put our laptops into the plane’s cargo hold, we have two risk factors requiring three responses.  The first risk is that the laptop will be stolen.  The second is it will be damaged and rendered non-functional (at least until after it has been repaired).  If you’re like many of us, with your entire personal and professional life sitting on your laptop, the thought of losing access to all this essential material, either temporarily or permanently, is terrifying, and the thought that someone else might end up possessing it all is only slightly less terrifying.

Our sense however is that the airlines (and Department of Transportation) are very worried about having an unknown number of laptops all randomly inside passenger suitcases, for fear that a battery in one of them might explode, and even if that battery explosion/fire isn’t enough to bring the plane down, it might then spread to another and another battery in other laptops in other suitcases, adding to the blaze in a nasty chain reaction, and before you know where you are, the plane has fallen out of the sky.

Plus the realists recognize that if the chances of finding a laptop in a suitcase start to rise steeply, so too will luggage pilfering and thefts.

So we’d not be surprised if some sort of system of special laptop checking in might not happen where everyone’s laptops are given something like a ‘gate to gate’ service, and kept in a special fireproof container on board.

But whether they end up in our suitcases or somewhere else, there are three things you can do now that are inexpensive, easy, and prudent.

1.  Security

No, there’s not really any practical security to prevent your laptop being stolen, but you can take measures to minimize the negative outcomes if it is stolen.

Make sure that your computer’s log-in requires you to enter a password, and strengthen your password by making it a few characters longer than it currently is, including digits and a mix of upper and lower case letters.  That will make it very difficult for people to hack into your laptop if they steal it, while hopefully still easy for you to quickly enter.

Now for an important second step.  Encrypt your hard drive.  An identity-thief could take your unencrypted hard drive, and connect it to a second computer.  He logs into the second computer, then can access your hard drive from that computer, bypassing your Windows login.

But if the hard drive is encrypted, it is totally useless unless the thief has the encryption key, and assuming you didn’t write its password on the top of your keyboard, he almost surely doesn’t have that, making your data strongly secure against all but the most determined attempts to access it.

There are potential downsides to encrypting your data – possibly a very slight hit on the speed your computer reads and writes data, and some complications if you have a hard disk crash – you’ll need to have a ‘recovery disk’ (usually something the encryption software helps you to create when setting up the software) available to re-access your hard drive.  You don’t want to end up locking yourself out of your own data!

Veracrypt seems to be a well-respected and well supported encryption program that runs on both PC and Mac hardware.  And it is free.

2.  Protection

Of course the first thing you’ll do is try to surround your laptop with clothing and other protective items in your checked bag.

But as a shortcut, and as an extra layer of protection, you can also get an inexpensive and reasonably thin computer sleeve.  They weigh next to nothing and don’t bulk up your laptop too much either.  Amazon has thousands of laptop sleeves available, ranging in price generally from slightly under $10 to $20 (although if you’ve just won the lottery, they also have some priced at $1800!).  We suggest you simply select the screen size of your laptop to narrow down their choices, then choose a plain ordinary functional one (skip the leather) because it isn’t something you’ll be proudly displaying to the world.  It is simply something to protect your laptop while it is inside your suitcase, or inside whatever other type of laptop transport arrangement the airlines come up with.

3.  Backup

The third part of this triad is to back up your data so that if the laptop is lost, you still have your data.

Sure, you can backup ‘to the cloud’.  That probably works well at home and in your normal office, but we really don’t recommend that when traveling.  When you’re traveling, there’s every chance you’re connecting to the internet through insecure Wi-Fi, and a real-time backup program is streaming all sorts of private and personal data to and from the cloud, non-stop.  If over an insecure Wi-Fi network, this possibly might be something hackers could tap into.

Plus you can’t guarantee you’ll have access to reliable fast internet while traveling.

We suggest you either get a small USB thumb drive or a small-sized external hard drive.  We are slightly concerned that the electronics ban might extend beyond laptops to other electronics that are ‘larger than cell phones’ too, so if you choose an external hard drive, make sure it is smaller than a cell phone, otherwise you might end up with both your laptop and your backup in the same bag and both stolen (or maybe even just routed to the wrong airport or mysteriously lost for some days, maybe forever) simultaneously.

The Seagate Backup Plus Slim ($74 for 2TB, other sizes also available) and Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Slim ($90 for 2TB) are good choices and fit within the allowable carry-on size for the current electronics ban.  Most others (including the Western Digital My Passport Ultra Portable and the Toshiba Canvio drives) are too thick.

A thumb drive is very much smaller and unlikely to ever be banned, but it will hold less data and cost more.  You should probably get a 256GB thumb drive at the minimum, and those seem to be about $50 – $80 on Amazon.  512GB thumb drives are also available, but at considerably greater cost.  If buying a thumb drive, you should be willing to pay a little more so as to get a ‘name brand’ drive.  They tend to accept data faster, and be slightly more reliable.

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  7 Responses to “Preparing for the Inevitable Ban on In-Cabin Laptops”

  1. It’s a total bummer for me. Though I don’t have a laptpp, I do have an I-pad AND I don’t do checked luggage! To say I am NOT a Happy Camper is a understatement!

  2. […] And speaking of those economy fares – how many leisure travelers would cancel their trips if they couldn’t easily bring their electronics? Anecdotally, I’ve already had two friends tell me they would cancel their European trips this summer if this ban comes to fruition, and another who was routing through Heathrow to get to Asia and wanted my advice on rerouting. I wouldn’t recommend rerouting any trips you currently have booked, or changing your destination to somewhere the laptop ban isn’t in play. When the ban was first issued between the Middle East/Africa and the U.S., it made sense to reroute via Europe and save some productive time; right now, it could make sense to route via Canada. But I think it’s only a matter of time until this ban is extended to Canada… and beyond. If you’re traveling in the next few days, that could be a viable loophole, but if you’re traveling further than a week or two out, I think changing your flight is going to be a whole lot of hassle that probably won’t amount to any differences in in-flight experience. Instead, check out these tips from Travel Insider on how to secure your data in preparation for the ban. […]

  3. A basic level of protection for a laptop when you are placing it in luggage or even if carrying it in a backpack or other bag is a Fedex bubble pak envelope. Cost $0.00! They are larger than most laptops and can be cut to size with a scissor to create a slip-on sleeve.

  4. What if you are not checking luggage but just carrying on?

    • Good question. This is another issue the airlines and TSA need to anticipate and resolve. I know in the past that on occasion, airlines will come up with some sort of oversized box to put illegal carry-on items in (they once gave me an enormous suitcase sized box into which I put a single small Swiss Army Knife!)

      All the more reason to have a prepared strategy for what to do if you can’t carry your laptop onto the plane. Do you check the entire carry-on bag, or do you have a protective shell for the laptop and check it alone?

    • Anyway you look at it it’s a bummer. I use an I-pad and don’t do checked luggage. And some airlines have been doing their entertainment system around I-pads and the like.

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