As I write this, it's been a few days since I returned from a Kenya press trip, and I'm awaiting word from Qatar Airways about my company-issued MacBook Air, which went missing from my checked baggage en route from Nairobi to New York.
I was catching a connecting flight in Doha, Qatar, among the 10 airports where passengers headed to the U.S. are prohibited from carrying certain electronics onboard. As the Department of Homeland Security fact sheet puts it: "Examples of large electronic devices that will not be allowed in the cabin on affected flights include, but are not limited to: laptops, tablets, e-readers, cameras" and so on.
Since my checked baggage was going straight to JFK -- it's always a relief not to have to re-collect baggage for a connecting flight -- I decided to pack my laptop and camera in my suitcase in Nairobi.
As part of the security process in Nairobi, I opened up my suitcase and backpack and went through them with an agent before check-in. Adjacent to that checkpoint was a kiosk where passengers could pay to have their suitcases wrapped in plastic film as an extra precaution. Quite a few passengers were using the service.
Chumps, I thought. And off I went to Doha, about a six-hour flight.
Qatar Airways, like many carriers affected by the ban, offers a packing service for those who wish to use their devices up until the point of departure from one of the affected airports: Devices are placed in a cardboard box and plastic bag for stowage and claimed upon arrival along with checked baggage.
The security check-in at the Doha airport. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya
At the boarding gate, the lines for the service were considerably longer than I recalled them being a couple of months ago after a press trip to Doha. Signs at Qatar Airways check-in counters state that passengers "are encouraged to secure their items ... in their checked-in luggage," and after seeing those lines, I felt even better about my decision.
Of course, a lot can happen in 12 hours.
As I'd done a few months before, after grabbing my suitcase off the conveyor belt at JFK, I found an out-of-the-way spot and opened it -- just for the peace of mind that my laptop wasn't somehow damaged. I didn't expect it would be gone.
Denial set in. I checked my suitcase's outer pocket. Nope. My traveling companion, a rep for the Kenya Tourism Board, emailed Angama Mara, the final lodge from our itinerary, to make sure I didn't leave it behind. Nope.
So at JFK, I filled out a Passenger Property Questionnaire, then, via email, a Property Irregularity Report -- a delightful bit of understatement. (Your laptop is missing? Most irregular.)
There are a few bright spots. First, I've lost only a few photos and some notes; everything else was backed up. Second, nothing else was missing. Camera and brand-new zoom lens? Check. Library books about Kenya? Check. Filthy, DEET-drenched safari wardrobe? Check. (At least the plunderers could have spared me from laundry day.)
Lastly, I was relieved that our IT department and my boss were understanding. Both basically said that given the restrictions, it was bound to happen to someone eventually.
Since I travel frequently for work, it's not too surprising that it was my laptop. I was probably naive in believing that the regulations didn't have to affect my behavior much. Maybe it's time to add that suitcase-wrapping service to my travel routine, or to start supplementing my TSA locks with zip ties.
But, of course, it's just the latest restriction that's changed how we fly over the past two decades, along with removing your belt and shoes at security checkpoints, restrictions on liquids in your carry-on, new screening technologies and so forth.
And with the possibility of the ban spreading to other airports, it's something all U.S. travelers might have to contend with sooner or later.