ATW Editor's Blog

Trying to make sense of the new TSA electronics ban

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I flew to Abu Dhabi for a short work trip in January and, if I’m honest, I found the security and screening processes at that airport ahead of my flight back to Washington DC a bit annoying.

However, given today’s announcement about new US security rules for flights from that airport and nine others, most of them also in the Middle East, the focus of my annoyance has changed.

As usual, on my January trip I flew with carry-on only. And as usual, my carry-on luggage included my laptop, an e-book, a mini iPod, a mini iPod speaker (for my hotel room; I never turn on a TV), a camera and my smartphone.

On arriving at Abu Dhabi for the Etihad flight home to Washington Dulles, the security screenings were multi-layered. First there was an eye scan (passengers have their eyes scanned on arrival at Abu Dhabi immigration). There followed the usual X-ray screening in which my laptop and gel bag had to be placed in a separate tray and shoes removed.  But then there was a third screening. This took place in a dedicated area of the terminal from which US-bound flights depart. Abu Dhabi has a pre-clearance agreement with the US, so passengers traveling to the US go through US customs and immigration in Abu Dhabi, then must wait in a sterile area until boarding. The bonus is that on arrival in the US, you leave the plane and it’s like arriving on a US domestic flight – your customs and immigration checks were completed in Abu Dhabi.

However, the additional security screening in Abu Dhabi is extremely thorough. I was told to fully open my roller-bag and leave it open and spread out on the conveyor belt: it went through the X-ray machine that way. I had to remove every electrical item, including my mini iPod player, the mini speaker, the e-book, camera, phone and, of course, my laptop, and they were screened separately. Meanwhile, I was escorted to a side room to be wanded and patted down by a female security officer (this was after going through the body scanner and no alarms going off). My fingers were tested for explosives.

It was a laborious process, but I saw they were doing the same to everyone – it wasn’t like I was being singled out for special treatment. So I was a bit annoyed at all this extra security, but in the end it was no big deal.

With the new US security rules, however, my annoyance is focused not on Abu Dhabi’s security procedures but on why the US is singling out airports like Abu Dhabi that clearly take security at least as seriously as the US Department of Homeland Security.

Under these rules, I will no longer be able to carry my camera, mini-speaker, e-book or my laptop in my carry-on. I can manage without the first three. But my laptop? That’s essential; all my work is contained in it. I frequently work and post articles from airports and onboard planes. The Etihad flight had good Wi-Fi and I worked for about five hours getting articles edited, written and posted. Not only would checking a bag be an unnecessary hassle, but I’d be very, loathe to put my entire office – contained within a computer for which I personally paid more than $1,000 – into checked luggage.

As a frequent flier, I am highly appreciative of security and fully realize that terrorists continue to target aviation. But the examples that US government officials cited as to why this ban is necessary don’t seem to me to justify the response.

The first example was the bombing in February 2016 in which a passenger on an A321 apparently detonated explosives hidden in an electronic device he was carrying. He was killed, but the aircraft safely returned to the airport and all other passengers and crew were ok. Clearly, this incident provides an indication of the nature of the security concerns that prompted the new US rules. But it happened onboard a Daallo Airlines aircraft after it took off from Mogadishu bound for Djibouti. Daallo now operates just one aircraft (the second in its fleet of two being the damaged and now inoperable A321). To compare the safety and security practices of Daallo with Etihad, or the security standards of Mogadishu Airport with Abu Dhabi International, seems ridiculous.

The US officials also cited last year’s two, separate terrorist attacks on Brussels and Istanbul airports. But those both happened on the landside of the terminals, not after security screening and not onboard planes. The new security rules would not have prevented either attack.

I cite Abu Dhabi’s high security standards because I experienced them recently. But other airports – and their home-hub carriers – affected by this ban have equally high standards. The airports in Dubai and Qatar, in particular, are huge, sophisticated operations.

So I’m scratching my head on this one. Why these airports? Why now? And for how long is such a peculiarly targeted ban sustainable?

Karen.walker@penton.com

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