I’ve been thinking for a while about writing more about the airline industry. While I do feature lots of travel industry news in my Sunday Links I Love series, I never thought most of you would be interested in that kind of content. But customer experience for travel and transportation is my field of specialization at work, and news in that space has been quite a mainstream topic these days! Yesterday, I posted on Instagram (follow me here) about the forthcoming announcement of the extension of the laptop ban to transatlantic European flights. That story got more comments than anything I’ve previously shared… so I thought perhaps it was time to blog about my thoughts.
(Since this is the industry in which I work, I’d like to start by making it clear that the opinions I’m about to share do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my firm or my colleagues, many of whom have differing views.)
Let’s start by going back to February 2016, when a plane took off from Mogadishu, Somalia… and exploded 20 minutes later when a laptop bomb went off on board. While that’s pretty scary, flight 159 was pretty lucky: while the alleged bomber was killed, the pilot was able to make an emergency landing and save everyone else on board. It’s widely believed that this luck was due to a flight delay – had the plane taken off when it was supposed to, the bomb (which was detonated with a timer device) would have exploded at a higher altitude and killed everyone on board. Two weeks later, Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab took credit for the attack. And six weeks ago, a U.S. intelligence source said that a recent raid on Al Qaeda in Yemen indicated that terrorists have refined this concept and developed bombs that fit seamlessly into the battery compartments of laptops… but need to be manually triggered. Cue the ban on laptops flying from ten airports in the Middle East/Africa to the U.S., and then eight airports in the Middle East/Africa to the UK.
At first, a lot of industry insiders were skeptical that the ban was truly a result of a security threat. The fact that it didn’t affect any US carriers (as none fly nonstop to the US from the affected airports) seemed like a thinly-veiled protectionism measure for US carriers who are frequently annoyed by Etihad, Emirates, and other state-subsidized carriers encroaching on their turf. When the UK joined in the ban, it gave the threat a bit more credibility. We still don’t know the details of the threat other than that anonymous source I linked above, and I don’t expect intelligence to reveal what’s going on just to satisfy everyone’s curiosity. But now that the ban is potentially being extended to flights going from Europe to the US (a fairly logical expansion of the ban, given the connecting flight loophole as well as the fact that Europe is known to have some terrorist cells who have carried out attacks there), it will hit the US carriers pretty hard – so I can’t imagine this would be done without reason.
When the ban was first announced, it got a ton of press in the industry. Having personal devices for entertainment and work is a hallmark of flying, especially on longer trips. Personally, I can’t imagine flying transatlantic without my laptop or Kindle! Qatar Airways started offering loaner laptops to premium cabin customers affected by the ban, which Etihad followed by offering loaner iPads and free wi-fi to premium cabin customers on flights affected by the ban. But despite these airlines trying to find a way to accommodate and still give passengers the closest facsimile to their normal in-flight experience (and the airlines affected are known for their high-quality customer experience), a few weeks after the ban, Emirates said that their bookings had dropped up to 35%. Yikes!
Throughout all of the articles I’ve seen on this topic, even after the UK joined the ban, most people thought that this laptop ban wouldn’t be expanded beyond the Middle East/Africa. While many agreed that it was kind of a useless ban if it was only from certain airports, it seemed unthinkable that this could become a more expansive policy. But from the beginning, I’ve expected the geographic span to grow (see here and here). Remember back before the summer of 2006, when you could pack your regular-sized toiletries in your carry on without a problem? Eleven years later, we’ve become so used to the 3-1-1 rule that we barely remember the small luxury of taking a giant bottle of sunscreen with us rather than buying it once we get to the beach. A lot can change in policies and norms, and I think this new laptop ban will soon become the new normal.
Unfortunately, that has some pretty severe implications – and I don’t mean just boredom for those who want to play games on their iPad in flight. For frequent business travelers, the prospect of being unable to work in flight may cause them to reevaluate the necessity of traveling. I’ve often said that with video conferencing technology being so ubiquitous, a lot of in-person meetings could be avoided – but this ban could be the push needed to start that happening more and more. (Especially as corporate IT departments scramble to figure out safe ways to have their staff check laptops to avoid potential theft of either the equipment or the sensitive data, as many have policies that company electronics cannot be checked.) A decline in business travel would be a huge loss to the airlines, who rely on business travelers paying premium prices to subsidize the dirt cheap economy fares that we’ve all become used to.
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.
Beyond being an annoyance to customers and a revenue hit for airlines, this ban also has the potential to be extremely disruptive for the long-haul low-cost carriers who were expected to really shake up the industry in a few months with the delivery of new planes. Norwegian’s business model includes some serious fees to be viable, including a $45 charge for checking a bag, and other low-cost carrier fees are similar. That fee now essentially becomes a $45 fee (each way) to have your electronic devices with you at your destination – which makes it a lot harder to get around than just learning to pack in a carry on. I’ve been pretty psyched for the rise of these low cost carriers to open up new routes at unheard-of prices, but if the economics aren’t viable thanks to lower loads, that’s not going to happen.
For now, the laptop ban hasn’t been expanded… but I think there’s a good chance it will be. Which begs the question: how much are we willing to sacrifice to make flights “safe”? By putting laptops in the cargo hold, we increase the risk of lithium batteries spontaneously combusting in a cargo hold where there’s no one to put them out. And, who’s to say that the terrorist groups planning these attacks won’t quickly develop a way to remotely detonate a laptop bomb that’s complying with the rules by being put inside a checked bag? Do we want to go as far as to say no electronics are allowed anywhere on a plane? I can’t imagine that becoming the new policy… but these days, I wouldn’t even bet against that. I’m no expert on terrorism or security, but I think at some point we need to continue to live our lives and not worry about the one in a million risk that someone might do something terrible.