The recent bans imposed by the US and UK on electronic devices carried as hand luggage on inbound flights from certain Muslim-majority countries, is bad news for travellers.
The regulations follow as a result of a 2016 incident where a laptop bomb exploded on board a Daallo Airlines flight in Somalia. The laptop was handed to the suspect by two airport workers, beyond the security checkpoint.
In an attempt to lower the risk of electronic devices being used by terrorists to hide explosives, the US and UK have both instituted bans on electronic devices larger than smartphones being carried as hand luggage on certain inbound flights. Travellers are now expected to check them into the hold, as if that would be safer.
The impact of this will be huge. More than 50 flights per day will be affected, and the Middle East has become an important international airline hub over the last decade or so, which means destinations around the world will be affected.
Take South Africa, for example. The cheapest flights between Europe and South Africa are often via the Middle East, with one of the airlines affected by the ban. This means if a family decides to go on safari and bring photographic equipment, tablets for the kids and a laptop for dad so he can get some work done on the long flights, these devices will all need to be checked into the hold on the way back.
As most regular travellers and insurance companies know, it is not safe to pack any valuables into checked luggage, and in fact most travel insurance companies do not cover the loss of valuables packed into checked luggage. Pilfering and theft is a major problem, not only at South African airports but at many airports around the world. What person in his right mind will risk checking his expensive camera, iPad or laptop into his checked luggage?
Think of serious photographers coming on a photographic safari from the US or UK. One professional camera body and lens can cost over R140 000 ($10 000). Some of our clients have brought over a million rands’ worth ($75 000) of photographic equipment on safari. If insurance will not cover it, there is no way the photographer will put those items into checked luggage. Theft is not the only risk – the risk of damage is just as real.
Another affected group are business travellers. Many regular business travellers use the hours on board a flight to get some work done and prepare for upcoming meetings or conferences at their destination. They need to be as productive as possible. Without their laptops, a long-haul flight becomes frustratingly unproductive. And if the laptop is stolen from their checked luggage, the loss of data and sensitive company information would be disastrous.
What should concern us all is that these regulations are unable to prevent what they are supposedly trying to prevent. If a laptop contains a bomb that can bring down a plane, putting it in the cargo hold is not a solution. In fact, the 2016 incident illustrates perfectly the flawed thinking behind these regulations. If airport staff were involved in that incident after the security checkpoint, stricter security measures and regulations affecting passengers will not stop such actions.
Airport staff were the accomplices in that incident, and airport staff are the ones who pilfer bags and steal valuables from checked luggage. If they can retrieve valuables from checked luggage without getting caught, what stops a baggage handler from adding an explosive device to checked luggage without getting caught? What is needed are stricter controls, security measures and surveillance of airport staff and the entire baggage-handling process. Banning passengers from carrying electronic devices will not solve anything.
It was Benjamin Franklin who said: "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
In this instance it is not a case of travellers giving up their essential travel liberty, it is the governments of the US and UK who unilaterally take these liberties away from citizens in the name of security. For countries that routinely boast about freedom and liberty, they appear to be curbing the freedom of travellers at every opportunity.
Unless the Middle East or any of the affected countries is your destination, there is a solution of course. These regulations will force travellers to use US- and UK-based airlines that offer direct flights and are not subject to the ban on electronic devices.
Perhaps this was the intention all along?