3 Things You Must Know About the New Electronic Devices Travel Restriction

A primer on how the heightened security measure will affect you on your next flight.

By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterApril 6, 2017
By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterApril 6, 2017, at 1:27 p.m.
U.S. News & World Report

3 Things You Must Know About the New Electronic Devices Travel Restriction

A Libyan traveller packs his laptop in his suitcase before boarding his flight for London at Tunis-Carthage International Airport on March 25, 2017.
The United States this week announced a ban on all electronics larger than a standard smartphone on board direct flights out of eight countries across the Middle East, in effect from March 25, 2017. US officials would not specify how long the ban will last, but Emirates told AFP that it had been instructed to enforce the measures until at least October 14. Britain has also announced a parallel electronics ban targeting all flights out of Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Lebanon.

Tunisia is one of eight majority-Muslim countries where U.S.-bound travelers face an electronics ban.(FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

In case you haven't heard, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security implemented a new rule last week barring airline passengers from taking laptops and other large portable devices in their carry-on luggage (think: tablets, e-readers, electronic games and cameras) on direct flights to the U.S. from 10 airports in eight majority-Muslim countries. The U.K. quickly followed suit, unveiling its own policy that prohibits passengers from carrying digital devices aboard inbound flights from six countries: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In light of the U.S. and U.K. restrictions, chances are you're concerned about how your traveling experience will change under the new guidelines.

While some of the ban's implications are straightforward, others raise more questions: What prompted barring in-cabin tablets and computers? Do I need to check all of my electronics? How can I protect my digital devices from getting lost, stolen, broken or tampered with? Will the added measure of placing electronics in checked suitcases bolster passenger safety and prevent future terrorist attacks? To help you understand the shifting rules and stay prepared before your next flight, U.S. News solicited guidance from air-travel experts and seasoned flyers.

Why the Ban Was Implemented

The new policy was carried out to protect travelers from international terrorism, explains Matthew Bradley, regional security director, Americas, for International SOS and Control Risks, a medical and security risk-management company. It was prompted largely by intelligence showing an intent among terrorists to smuggle explosives concealed in large electronic devices, he adds, noting that the rule is "meant not as an inconvenience, but actually as a protective measure." The regulation may also offer more chances for TSA agents to scan and search checked luggage.

But travelers have not been privy to the specifics behind the ban, so the regulation and potential safety hazards aren't well-understood, cautions Gary Leff, author of frequent-flyer site View From the Wing. Aside from uncertainty over the details and reasoning prompting the policy change for select international carriers, skeptics also question the potential hazards of other electronics, since smaller digital devices like smartphones could threaten in-flight safety, with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7's exploding-battery issues triggering widespread concern over phones charged by lithium-ion batteries.

Security concerns over carrying on large electronic devices is nothing new. "If you recall, a few years ago flyers were required to turn on devices at security checkpoints, but it seems that there is evidence that terrorists have figured a way to smuggle components onto planes that could be combined into explosive devices," says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com.

To comply with the ban, international airlines offering U.S.-bound flights from impacted areas – Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have had to overcome some logistical headaches.

"The challenge, of course, is managing the collection and transport of passengers' most-important possessions," says Zach Honig, editor-in-chief of The Points Guy. "Airlines seem to be doing a decent job of handling this process so far, though the ban has been enforced inconsistently, with some airlines expanding the ban to include other battery-powered devices such as noise-canceling headphones," he adds.

Under the new rule, passengers must check these larger electronic devices such as tablets and laptops in their suitcase before they clear security, with the exception of select carriers such as Qatar Airways, Emirates and Turkish Airlines, which allow flyers to gate-check items before boarding and receive them in a specified baggage claim location upon arrival.

How the Rule Affects Business (and Leisure) Travelers

While leisure travelers will experience diminished in-flight entertainment options on routes impacted by the policy, including the inability to watch movies or read an e-book, road warriors face the largest disruption in productivity, Honig explains.

Aside from being unable to complete work at 35,000 feet, "the ban represents a serious problem for business travelers, particularly those who may have sensitive information on their work laptops or tablets," explains Andrew Sheivachman, a senior writer at travel site Skift. "Business travelers are generally instructed not to check their work electronics, because they can either be damaged or accessed without their permission," he adds.

Fortunately, some international airlines have unveiled creative solutions to mitigate the ban's impact. Emirates, for instance, has enabled travelers to check their devices at their terminal gate to pacify worries concerning theft or damage from luggage handlers, Sheivachman says. "Etihad will also distribute loaner iPads to first- and business-class flyers, in a move to allow their most valued customers to remain connected while en route to the U.S.," he explains. Qatar Airways similarly unveiled a loaner service so premium passengers in business- and first-class seats can stay productive in-flight. "Flyers can bring documents on USB drives and plug them into these laptops to do their work," Hobica adds. He also advises putting all sensitive material on USB thumb drives, which are currently allowed in flight cabins.

How You Can Protect Your Devices and Data

Before your trip, ask yourself if you really need to take your laptop with you, Bradley says. If you will need a laptop, consider getting access to a clean laptop (one that does not contain sensitive information that could be compromised or is at risk of being affected by a virus or other malware), or, at the very least, encrypting your data, he adds. Apps such as FileVault and BitLocker enable you to easily protect your files from getting compromised by hackers.

"Travelers should carefully consider the risks involved in placing those devices in checked bags," Bradley says. He advises packing fragile items in bubble wrap inside your bag and using a TSA-approved lock as a stepped-up security measure. Even if your laptop is encrypted, somebody could install key-logging software, Leff cautions, emphasizing the importance of removing sensitive material from your machine and using a thumb drive for added security.

Hobica also advises investing in travel insurance in case your stowed-away items are damaged or stolen. "Many credit cards provide insurance even for electronics in checked bags," he says, highlighting that the American Express Platinum Card "will provide insurance if the flight was purchased with the card."

If you don't want to deal with the added nuisance of stowing away your electronics in your checked luggage, consider rerouting your flight through an unaffected hub, Bradley advises. Honig also cautions that "customers traveling from the Middle East will be subject to the ban regardless of which airline they're flying, but passengers connecting from other regions may choose to connect in Europe or Asia instead, just so they can continue to access their devices during the flight."

Liz Weiss, Staff Writer

Liz Weiss is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. With more than six years of ...  Read more

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