Why airline laptop bans are about more than just security
Aviation security is vital but governments should ensure they listen to those who understand the implications before taking action, argues Alan Peaford.
There is one thing on which all those involved in the aviation industry will agree – safety should be our number one priority. Maintaining the confidence of those who book themselves or their goods onto our aircraft is essential.
However, the recent moves led by the United States Government undermine the good work and expertise developed over the past century by aviation industry professionals.
The decision – allegedly backed by ‘intelligence’ – that led to the banning of laptops, tablets and other portable electronics in aircraft cabins flying from a targeted list of airports, is ill thought-out. That became apparent when the UK, which shared the same intelligence information, also banned the equipment… but from different countries.
Of course, we recognise the difficult truth that the aviation industry remains on the front line as terrorists persist in trying to strike our airlines and airports – in this case through creating an explosive device that looks like a battery for portable electronic devices.
But I am sure many of us must share the view expressed by groups such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the Flight Safety Foundation, that these latest measures are ineffective and potentially dangerous.
IATA director general, Alexandre de Juniac, says UK and US authorities should work with the airline industry to “find a way to keep flying secure” without requiring passengers on certain flights to check in their electronic devices.
“The current measures are not an acceptable long-term solution to whatever threat they are trying to mitigate. Even in the short term, it is difficult to understand their effectiveness,” he said.
The American targeting of Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai – the hubs of the airlines considered a major commercial threat by American carriers and their political lobbyists – is surely more than a coincidence. All three remain clear for the UK and, indeed, Dubai’s security standards and systems were declared “best in class” by a UK audit. Dubai has also stepped up secondary checks.
Industry and safety experts have rightly argued that filling the hold of a commercial airliner with the lithium-ion batteries used to power most consumer electronics would create a hazard all of its own, and it becomes increasingly clear that it could have disastrous consequences. That is why the bulk transport of these on aircraft is banned under the Dangerous Goods Act.
As far as I can see, the only security that this particular measure will provide is financial security to American carriers.
There are well reported examples of fatal accidents where the probable cause was a “catastrophic explosion,” caused by fires from lithium ion batteries which – according to the US’s own regulator, the FAA – aircraft fire suppression systems are “incapable of preventing.” Such fires downed Boeing 747s in Dubai and South Korea in 2010 and 2011, killing all crew members (no passengers were on board). Then, a series of fires in the batteries of Boeing 787s prompted the FAA to ground the entire Dreamliner fleet in 2013.
In 2015, a smoking lithium ion battery in a flight attendant’s credit card reader prompted an emergency landing in Buffalo, New York.
Affected airlines are reacting by offering “loan” laptops to enable passengers to work on board the aircraft, while others are planning to take the laptop at the gate and return it on arrival, having packed all of the passenger laptops together. The effect on that container if one battery overheats and causes a fire is yet unknown.
The bottom line
Already, passenger numbers to the US from Asia, Africa and the Middle East on journeys that transit through the offending airports are dropping.
Emirates has announced a reduced programme of flights to the US, citing American policies as the cause.
This can particularly affect premium passengers, who are most likely to work on the flight – and it is these premium passengers that can make the difference between profit and loss.
While non-Gulf carriers may be enjoying the problems the Arab airlines are facing, that pleasure may be short-lived as the impact on the whole aerospace industry could be significant.
More than a quarter of the widebody backlogs at Airbus and Boeing come from Middle Eastern orders, and a slowdown by those airlines could have a severe impact on the aerospace sector.
The big three carriers (Emirates. Etihad and Qatar) have an even larger proportion of the backlog for Airbus’s and Boeing’s Airbus 380 and Boeing 777-300 programmes, with nearly 50% of the A380 backlog from Middle Eastern airlines. Emirates has already deferred six of its A380 deliveries into 2018.
For Boeing, the Middle Eastern carriers represent a third of the 777-300 backlog. Turkish Airlines – another to suffer from the laptop ban – has deferred on deliveries and as we look ahead, the stretched version of the 777-X is due to enter service in late 2019, with Gulf carriers making up 77% of its 235 orders.
Both Airbus and Boeing supply chains reach way beyond the manufacturer’s regional borders, and a slowdown from the Middle East could spread to SMEs in Europe, Africa, the US and Asia.
Understanding the implications
Global technology companies are also pushing for new technologies to be adopted by airports to counter new threats. The development of 3D computed tomography (CT) security screening is improving today’s airport security.
Security and safety are vital but inconsistencies in the approach cast doubt on policy. If a knee-jerk policy compromises safety and beyond that, threatens the sustainability of an industry, then governments should ensure they listen to those who understand the implications first.