The TSA’s New Ban on Laptops in Cabins May Not Be the Worst Thing

If you’ve got travel plans involving the Middle East and Africa, pack some books. The Department of Homeland Security is requiring passengers on some airlines serving those regions to pack their gadgets—cellphones and medical devices excepted—in their checked bags. Reuters, citing an anonymous official, reports the rule will apply to nearly a dozen airlines, flying to and from 10 airports in eight countries.

The agency and the Transportation Security Administration aren’t saying much about the restrictions, which appear to apply to flights between the US and the Middle East and Africa. But some of the unspecified airlines involved have provided snippets of information. This morning, in a since-deleted tweet, Royal Jordanian Airlines told passengers that, starting Tuesday, anyone aboard its flights into or out of the US must check all electrical devices—iPads, laptops, cameras, games, the lot. Saudia Airlines followed with a tweet saying the American government had banned the electronics from plane cabins.

The DHS did not respond to a request for comment, but in a statement to other media said, “We have no comment on potential security precautions, but will provide any update as appropriate.”

The #electronicsban bears the marks of a targeted reaction to a specific threat. “It just feels like there was an intel briefing that they had,” says Kip Hawley, who ran the TSA between 2005 and 2009. Grouping several airlines and electronic devices in one advisory can protect specific intelligence while defusing the threat and minimizing the number of people impacted by the action, he says.

Allowing cell phones but prohibiting larger devices also makes sense, because smaller devices are less likely to conceal enough explosives or other contraband to cause serious damage. “You actually need physical size to get the pop that you need to knock down a plane,” Hawley says. And the cargo hold is a better place for a bomb. An explosion there is surrounded by suitcases, not passengers, and the belly of a plane is robustly reinforced. “You really need a big bomb to knock a plane down underneath the floor,” Hawley says. Yes, the threat of a midair explosion supersedes concerns that the lithium-ion batteries powering those laptops and DVD players will catch fire down below.

Screening facilities at US airports should be able to catch explosives hidden in electronic devices, Hawley says, but this ban applies to US-bound flights originating abroad. If the move proves temporary, it could be a way of buying time until the TSA and other agencies can install new equipment or adopt new screening procedures. “It was, ‘OK, here’s a threat, and while we figure it out, we’re gonna stop it in its tracks,’” Hawley says. “And boom, they did it.”

One thing you shouldn’t expect: an explanation. “I don’t think they’re gonna tell you where they got their information,” says Erik Rigler, a former FBI agent and aircraft accident investigator. Authorities could be acting on information from the FBI, NSA, CIA, DEA, a foreign intelligence unit, or anyone else. The TSA and DHS won’t announce when or if the ban will end, either. And, Rigler says, the rule could well spread to other airlines and routes.

So before leaving for the airport, charge your phone, stock up on podcasts, grab a paperback, and maybe buy a magazine or two.

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