Perennially insecure security officials in the US, followed closely by the UK, recently introduced new restrictions preventing passengers on certain flights from taking any electronic items larger than a mobile phone into an aircraft cabin.
If they were adopted worldwide, they would effectively kill the idea of being able to stay connected while airborne, and would make doing business when travelling almost impossible. The looming question is whether security officials are so terrified by the shadows of terrorists that they risk creating more damage than terrorists ever could.
So far, the restrictions only apply to flights to the US and the UK from certain Muslim-majority Middle Eastern and North African countries. A cynic might wonder about the potentially dangerous concoction of security, insecurity and political posturing involved in the ban.
The US version says that consumer electronics bigger than mobile phones cannot be taken as hand luggage on flights from 10 airports, served by nine foreign airlines. The UK is more selective, targeting six countries, four of which are on the US list – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – and adding Lebanon and Tunisia.
Inconsistencies scream out from both governments’ actions. America’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) cited the changed threat environment as a rationale for the new measures, but suggested that there was no specific threat of an imminent attack.
These new rules conflict with Federal Aviation Administration instructions that lithium batteries that power most electronic devices must be carried in the cabin. Having numerous lithium-battery-powered devices in an aircraft hold is potentially hazardous – even before terrorists find ways of triggering devices remotely.
An allied concern for business travellers is being separated from their computers, which often contain sensitive information. For years, the TSA has issued strict instructions to passengers not to put valuables into checked baggage for fear of theft or damage – yet now they are insisting that such items are checked in.
Such a selective ban also fails to respect the ingenuity of terrorists, who are surely smart enough to fly from one of the banned airports to Paris, Amsterdam, London, or even Hong Kong, and from there to take a US airline to America. If hand-carried electronics are a danger on a flight from the Middle East, they are a potential danger on any flight.
So what is going on? Air passengers regularly have to endure strict security, including half undressing, getting rid of liquids, and separate inspections of computers and electronics. Are all the expensive machines and layers of security staff nothing but a useless show?
Security officials do take their work seriously. Hong Kong’s aviation security is exemplary. I have also been stopped at Osaka Kansai airport and asked about the house keys in my hand luggage; at Delhi, a purse of small coins baffled the scanning machine; and at Washington Dulles, I had to undergo a physical pat-down even after going through the full-body scanner because the machine could not cope with the sweat on my back in the 40-degree Celsius heat.
Airports, of course, consist of more than just passenger terminals, with immense luggage, maintenance and catering areas and thousands of staff – so eliminating terrorist passengers would still not guarantee safety in the air without top-class security elsewhere. It should be worrying to everyone who travels that, in spite of the panoply of expensive equipment and layers of checks, security officials are still so insecure.
Kevin Rafferty travels 150,000 miles a year by air