For the past several days, frequent travelers have been dreading something far worse than being stuck in a middle seat: having to check their laptops and tablets before flying home from Europe.
That’s the fear invoked by news reports that the Department of Homeland Security will expand its current ban on large electronic devices in the cabins of flights to the U.S. from the initial 10 airports across Africa and the Middle East to all U.S.-bound flights coming from anywhere in Europe.
Until we see the details of this plan’s implementations, we’ll have to hold off on some questions about a policy that almost no other country imposes.
Still, you should wonder what airlines might do to cope with such a ban, and what that might mean for your safety and the safety of your data.
Checking your laptop
The cardinal rule of checking baggage is not to put anything valuable into a bag that will spend hours in the custody of strangers, many of whom don’t work for the airline you fly.
Some foreign airlines blindsided by the electronics ban announced in March responded by setting up systems to check laptops at the gate or even on board, then keeping them with airline staff members until reuniting the devices with their owners after the flight.
That’s what Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines have done. The first three also offer loaner devices — laptops at Emirates and Qatar, iPads at Etihad — to passengers in business or first class.
People who have used these airlines’ laptop-check services — see, for instance, travel-blog reports on flights with Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, and Turkish — have generally had positive things to say about them.
Note that this service may not alleviate the fire hazard posed by their lithium-ion batteries, which are already banned from being shipped as cargo on passenger aircraft.
Analyst Bob Mann, president of the airline-consulting firm RW Mann & Company, warned that leaving this work to passengers would be even worse: “Given passengers cannot be presumed to know how to properly pack spare and in-use batteries and devices, this proposed order has very serious safety implications for every flight on which it is imposed.”
And flights from the U.S. to the Middle East involve far fewer people: 9,753,172 passengers in the 12 months ending last June, versus 59,401,505 travelers between the U.S. and Europe over that period, according to Department of Transportation statistics.
Protect your data if you can’t protect your device
Should the current ban be extended across Europe, travelers with gadgets would have to hope that their airlines would provide some sort of gadget-concierge service like those Mideast carriers.
But U.S. airlines — none of which fly out of the 10 airports covered by the current ban — have yet to say how they might deal with a wider prohibition on in-cabin electronics.
Neither United Airlines (UAL) nor Delta Air Lines (DAL) responded to requests for comments on the matter. A representative with American Airlines (AAL) referred me to the trade group Airlines for America, which wouldn’t set individual baggage policies.
If your airline will gate-check your laptop, you should not have to worry about baggage handlers stealing it. But you should still be ready for consequences worse than, say, nine hours of unproductive boredom between Frankfurt and Washington.
The cost of a lost laptop or tablet may not be an issue with devices worth less than thecap on liability for luggage (currently, about $1,550). But the data on them is another issue.
“We recommend that people that can, travel with a Chromebook,” advised Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology. Those cheap, light laptops backup your data automatically to Google (GOOG, GOOGL), allowing you to wipe one before handing it over, then restore it on arrival.
If you must carry a “real” laptop, Hall advised setting a “reasonably complex” password and powering the device down before checking it.
Another tech-policy expert had similar advice about bringing hardware you can’t quickly reset and restore once you get home.
“Ultimately, travelers should be more careful with the devices they choose to bring across borders under these new regulations,” wrote Amie Stepanovich, a policy manager and counsel with Access Now. “In many cases the best advice will be to leave the laptop at home.”