The travel industry last week called for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to explain the rationale behind a possible expansion of the current laptop and electronics ban in carry-ons aboard flights from Europe to the U.S., a move that is expected to have an outsize impact on corporate travel.
Currently, laptops and tablets are not allowed in carry-on bags on flights from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa.
The DHS confirmed last week that it was considering expanding that ban to flights from Europe to the U.S., but as of press time, the agency said no decision had been made.
"However, it is under consideration," a DHS spokesperson said. "DHS continues to evaluate the threat environment and will make changes when necessary to keep air travelers safe."
The U.S. Travel Association, the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) and ASTA all requested clarity on the reasoning behind the ban's possible expansion.
Jonathan Grella, U.S. Travel's executive vice president for public affairs, said, "It is critical that the U.S. government clearly communicate the details of this new policy and the reasons why it's needed, continually reassess it to ensure it remains relevant and effective and actively seek protocols that neutralize threats while minimizing disruption for legitimate business and leisure travelers."
Grella continued: "If there is a legitimate terror threat, the flying public needs to take it seriously and adjust to the new protocols as best they can. Travelers have been through this kind of thing before and are more resilient than we often think. Plus, the consequences of a major attack on the transportation system hardly need to be repeated. Threats are ever-evolving, and so must we all be."
The expansion seemed imminent enough for Aviation Week to report that the European Commission had told the Airports Council International Europe that the ban could be extended to European airports "shortly" and that London's Heathrow Airport, from which 17% of passenger traffic goes to the U.S., had already started preparing to implement the ban.
Both the U.S. and the U.K. in March issued directives requiring all laptops and other large electronics, such as tablets and cameras, to be put into checked baggage on flights from Muslim-majority countries.
The U.S. ban includes airports in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The U.K. ban applies to flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Travelers may still have cellphones with them on the planes.
According to a report last week in the New York Times, an intelligence official not authorized to speak publicly about the potential ban said it was being considered due to concerns that radicalized citizens or dual citizens of the EU might target U.S.-bound fights.
Corporate travel is likely to be the hardest-hit industry sector if the ban is expanded to European flights.
"An order of this sort would serve as a significant business travel depressant on routes whose economics depend on high-fare business travel," said aviation analyst Bob Mann of R.W. Mann & Co. "Business travel is powered by personal electronics that are both expensive and in many cases secured, with directions not to be checked for reasons of commercial security and protection of intellectual property, not to mention that airlines generally exclude from baggage loss and damage coverage for such high-cost items."
GBTA executive director Michael McCormick stated that while business travelers are willing to comply with these types of measures "if it is in the best interest of security," the policy would impact business travelers' ability to stay connected. It would also conflict with existing risk-management procedures, which direct business travelers to keep their devices on hand and in sight at all times for security purposes, as they might contain sensitive company data.
"Now, business travelers will need to be equipped with new information and ways to keep their company data safe," he said. "Additionally, nearly half (49%) of business travelers prefer to stay connected and get work done while flying. Not allowing them to bring their devices on the plane reduces productivity."
A 'big hit,' but how big?
Travel agents said the ban would challenge both the corporate and leisure space.
"I can easily say this would be a big hit to corporate, but measuring [it] is very difficult," said Jay Ellenby, president of Safe Harbors Business Travel in Bel Air, Md., and ASTA's chairman. "I'm not convinced it will cause people not to travel in the short term, but it could have mid- to long-term consequences. People are getting really tired of the hassles, the fights, belligerent people and now the electronics bans. At some point, it's going to wear down the traveling public to a point of relying further on video and alternative methods of travel."
While the potential ban would complicate productivity for business travelers, Charlene Leiss, president of corporate brands for Flight Centre Travel Group USA, said it was not likely to stop people from traveling.
"Business travelers, who are most likely to travel with laptops, are not easily deterred when it comes to getting from point A to B," she said.
Marc Casto, CEO and president of Casto Travel in San Jose, Calif., said the potential ban's impact would extend beyond the business realm. "Everyone who has a portable device and uses it to remain connected to their social network, or keep restless kids at bay, will be impacted," he said. "In short, it affects [us] all."
Agents will also see an impact, according to Brian Chapin, senior director of air and travel solutions for the Ensemble Travel Group.
"When issues like this or others arise, agents are the first point of contact," Chapin said. "Public response will most likely be similar to what was seen when the first electronics ban was put into place -- clients trying to get specifics and information on how to proceed will contact their agents."
ASTA joined the chorus of travel groups calling for clear rules regarding any expansions on the ban.
Eben Peck, ASTA's senior vice president of government and public affairs, said, "With regard to the current electronics ban and any future contemplated expansion, as well as other recent administration actions related to travel, we urge the administration to expeditiously set clear rules of the road so that travel industry stakeholders can serve their clients, that travel disruptions are kept to a minimum and that the traveling public can maintain confidence in an industry vital to our nation's economy."