For business travelers flying into the United States from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, there was a lot of confusion in the last week after the announcement that laptops, cellphones, smartphones, tablets and other personal electronic devices would not be allowed onto flights in carry-on baggage at more than 15 international airports if they were found to have dead batteries.
The move was a response to intelligence reports that al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen is planning to hide explosives inside battery-powered mobile devices.
U.S. security officials declined to disclose which airports were affected by the new measures and said the amount of screening would vary among airports.
The new measures were adopted out of concern that a phone could be hollowed out and filled with explosives.
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Yet the policy, to the extent that it is even being widely enforced, has had minimal effect on airports. In fact, according to FlightView.com, the on-time departure rate for flights into the United States last week from major airports in Britain, Germany, France, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait was better than in the previous week, before the new policy took effect.
Lack of information
Interviews with passengers and industry officials found that there had been little resistance among passengers — except for widespread complaints that the announcement, with scant information on what to expect and where, created more confusion than seemed necessary.
The Association of Corporate Travel Executives questioned its worldwide membership by email. Most of those who responded said they were concerned that no information had been provided about “what happens to cellphones or laptops that are denied boarding.” Most said the Transportation Security Administration “did a poor job” of keeping travelers informed about what to expect.
Security officials said the TSA had made an effort to avoid confusion by sending a draft of the new policy to foreign governments, none of which objected, and to the affected airlines.
Another concern is the prospect of having electronic devices confiscated, said Greeley Koch, the group’s executive director.
“Everybody is virtual today, and your office is basically your smartphone and your laptop,” Koch said, “and you’re thinking that you have to potentially part with that at an airport? You have to make a decision: Am I going to get on a flight without my office, or am I going to stay behind and potentially jeopardize some sort of deal that I’m working on? That’s why we thought when we heard about this policy that it was going to cause all sorts of confusion.”
In general, business travelers keep their electronic devices charged, even if a lack of charging stations at airports is a chronic complaint, especially when a traveler is on a long layover.
Despite the widespread confusion about the policy, the travel executives group had no reports from its members of devices being confiscated, though Koch and others said that this was occurring to some extent.
At the airports most affected by the policy — London’s Heathrow in Britain, Frankfurt in Germany, for example — airlines like British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa have their own security-checkpoint areas for most long-haul flights, so employees of those airlines would typically take custody of any device barred, as British Airways says it is doing. But in general, it is unclear what the chain of custody is for any confiscated device.
Still, there are concerns about privacy of personal or proprietary files on devices that may fall into government or other hands.
In the United States last year, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the Homeland Security Department’s asserted right to examine the content of a traveler’s electronic devices at border checkpoints, and to hold on to devices or copy data on them.
A bit more confusion occurred late last week with some news reports saying that the dead-battery policy was being expanded to include randomly selected domestic travelers in the United States. That policy, security officials say, affects the small number of fliers who are on the “selectee” watch list. These fliers, who receive an SSSS security code on their boarding passes and are pulled aside for extra screening, might have their devices subject to extra scrutiny by the TSA.
Most airlines failed to alert international travelers with any meaningful information about the new policy. But a few, including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Air France, posted website alerts warning U.S.-bound travelers to make sure their devices were charged before they arrived at the airport.
From what I see, British Airways has the smartest approach. Those whose devices might be barred at security, British Airways says, can rebook a flight or hand the device to airline agents at the checkpoint to have it either “collected on your return” or shipped to a specified address. A British Airways spokeswoman told me the airline would pay the shipping costs.
Confusion aside, the new policy might make travel executives more wary about carrying sensitive data on their devices. Of the travel managers who responded to the email, most said they were rethinking policies about travelers carrying proprietary information on those devices.
Some of this confusion could have been avoided. In an online survey of more than 1,200 British and U.S. travelers by Cheapflights.com, nearly half said the policy was unclear.
“I think there was definitely some communications failure,” said Emily Fisher, a Cheapflights spokeswoman.