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View from Washington: Imagine work travel without your laptop

What happens if this week's new US and UK airline security rules go global?

Airline travel restrictions just imposed by the US and UK have raised a stark prospect for the engineering road warrior: what might life at 30,000 feet be like without a laptop, even a tablet?

There is plenty of passenger scepticism over the move. You can see why.

There are once more inconsistencies in the two bans on cabin carriage of electronics larger than a smartphone.

The new US rules cover eight predominantly Muslim countries; the UK ones cover six. The US cites only airlines based in those countries; the UK order applies to all carriers from affected airports.

There is the charge that the restrictions use security as a fig leaf for economic sanctions – at least, in part.

The US ban includes airlines that it claims receive unfair and anti-competitive subsidies from their local governments. Two carriers about which the US has complained vociferously - Emirates of Dubai and Etihad of Abu Dhabi – do not feature in the UK measures, but do in those from Washington.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world some national aviation regulations – notably China’s - already ban electronics from hold luggage. Imagine you are travelling, as a friend will next week, from Beijing to London on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul Ataturk, one of the airlines and airports covered. He has been advised to recheck and repack his bags half way. It will, he says phlegmatically, help idle away the stopover.

EU transport experts will discuss the issue on Wednesday (29 March), though countries such as Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium say they are yet to be convinced.

Things are, well, up in the air. But we should still consider what might happen if the restrictions are applied more widely, assuming the intelligence behind them is ‘actionable’.

Their genesis has not been confirmed but appears to be the February 2016 laptop bomb attack on a flight out of Mogadishu Airport operated by Somali carrier Daallo Airlines. The only fatality was the bomber himself, but since then militant groups such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab are said to have refined their techniques.

There is an important caveat: the bombs are thought to require manual detonation. Hence, the distinction that laptops, tablets and other larger electronic devices can still be stowed in hold luggage.

Inconvenience aside, such intelligence must be taken seriously. Yet, it begs this question: Why target only certain carriers and countries?

This week’s horrible events in London showed how militants are looking to spread terror to Europe and the US through the use of ‘lo-tech’, cars and knives in that case. But the notion that these groups could not 'export' laptop bombs to airports and carriers outside the restrictions seems far-fetched. Current intelligence might point to certain countries but this evil weaponisation is based on portable devices.

Experience also shows that once such restrictions begin to be applied, most are ultimately applied globally. Think about the rules on liquids.

So again, what would life without your laptop be like?

Engineers travelled a lot before the digital age, arguably more than any other group outside the military. But in terms of the work they do now, computers are invaluable.

There is not much in the argument that road warriors would no longer be able to work on airplanes. Deal with it. But there would be serious issues with regard to – funnily enough – security.

Some corporate policies already specify that, during travel at least, company laptops must always be secure – as in locked away or with the user. Well, that would be a non-starter. And it’s worth remembering that baggage theft still occurs on a greater scale than we would like. As luggage is screened before going in the hold, machines will help the nefarious spot where the goodies reside.

One solution could be to mirror your computer on a portable hard drive. I have a 2TB HDD right here that is small enough to go in carry-on under the new rules. This would probably work well enough if you were going to a foreign branch of your own company, but try asking to plug one into the network of a customer. Not happening, is it?

There is the cloud. But virtual storage of company-confidential data is a thorny security issue already. Also, you’re still likely to need something more powerful than a smartphone to access it – try making sense of design files on a five-inch display?

Yes, maybe we could buy Chromebooks or equivalents on arrival for a couple of hundred quid (you should be able to see why rental would not work here). We could then pile them neatly next to the water bottles at security on the way back. Disposable computing – great for the environment.

I hope I am exaggerating. The experiences of staff travelling to the Middle East over the next few weeks will clarify things.

But you cannot escape the suspicion that, for the many who often travel for work, the paradigm may be about to change radically. We should prepare for that now. None of the immediately apparent solutions seems ideal.

 

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