What the US and UK electronics bans mean for international business travelers

Leave it at the office.
Leave it at the office.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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The sudden US and UK bans on electronics larger than a smartphone on flights from airports in the Middle East and North Africa are no laughing matter for business travelers.

Under the new rules unveiled this week, which the US government says was prompted by worries that these devices could be used in a terror attack on a plane, travelers won’t be able to bring their laptop computers, tablets, or electronic readers with them in the airplane cabin, and will be forced to stow them in checked luggage on certain flights bound for the UK and US.

Here’s what travelers flying in from the Middle East to the US or UK should know:

What flights are affected?

When do I have to part with my laptop or tablet?

Some airlines, including Emirates and Etihad, are allowing passengers to continue to use their devices until they are ready to board the plane, at which point bags are rescanned to check for devices. The airlines say they will then transport the device to the luggage hold for the passenger. Etihad, for example, says it will provide “padded envelopes” before the item is brought to luggage hold, but bringing a studier case would be wise.

What if I’m on a connecting flight?

Under the new restrictions, even if a US- or UK-bound traveler is connecting in one of the listed airports from elsewhere, India for instance, they are subject to the rules. It does not apply for UK- and US-bound flights that arrive from elsewhere. For example, if you are traveling from Dubai to London or New York via Frankfurt, you can still use a laptop in the cabin on each flight.

Expect some productivity loss

Some of the flights covered by the ban are more than 12 hours, plenty of time to get a night’s sleep and do some work. Separating business travelers from their computers or other devices may well cause a loss in productivity for those who rely on long-haul flights to get work done. This is especially painful for the self-employed and workers who bill by the hour.

To avoid the ban, companies could route passengers traveling from the region through other airports—though the extra time of a stopover has its own productivity penalty, and bleary-eyed road warriors tend to prefer nonstop flights.

Airlines, especially the fancy Persian Gulf carriers that are caught up in this ban, are known for their plush front-of-cabin service. But why would an employer spring for a spacious seat in business class if their employees can’t use the time to peruse spreadsheets? A drop in business class travelers is likely a worry for the carriers themselves, which make multiples more on business class than they do on economy seats.

Travelers might try bringing a portable keyboard for their smartphones, though many of which are hard to tell apart from small tablets, but it’s unclear whether they’d be allowed under the bans, and they could be uncomfortable to use for long periods of time. The British government detailed which devices are acceptable.

Leave the laptop at home—or clear its memory

You’ll sleep better. Even the remote chance that a device could be stolen from a checked bag is reason enough to opt instead for a loaner computer at your destination. Many companies don’t even allow employees to check company laptops in their luggage, says Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, an industry group. Check with your IT and corporate travel departments.

If you must bring your laptop, make sure you have multi-factor authentication, a security code sent by SMS, or a fingerprint requirement to access the device and important programs.

Even so, make sure its memory is cleared of sensitive information. Someone who “wants to compromise the device could get unfettered long-term access” to it, says Kayne McGladrey, director of information security services at cybersecurity consulting firm Integral Partners. Passwords and encryption may not be enough to protect your data: “They can just clone your drive.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, offered similar advice following stepped-up security checks, including of phones, at the US border.

Stash important work outside your hard drive. Upload your presentations and important documents to a secure online folder in the cloud, says Koch. A small thumb drive is a good backup too—but keep track of its whereabouts at all times.

Check your travel insurance policy

Not all travel insurance policies cover the cost of lost electronics that are placed in checked luggage, so make sure you’re covered. Credit cards may help but the coverage for checked baggage is often less than it is for carry-on luggage (pdf).

Many airlines will not reimburse passengers for laptops or other electronics if they were stored in checked luggage that was lost or stolen. Qatar Airways, whose nonstop flights from Doha to the United States are included in the US ban, instructs passengers not to store computers in their checked bags, for instance—though it issued a special notice saying it will now assist passengers checking in their electronics.

Why is this happening?

It’s a confounding ban, to be sure. Both the US and the UK say the restrictions are in the name of security, and there is overlap between the two, but they don’t line up entirely. The US ban listed certain airports, while the UK includes a list of countries. Critics of the ban have cast doubt on the security justification.

Some theorize that the US ban is designed to hurt Middle East carriers that US airlines have complained receive subsidies from their governments and pose unfair competition. US carriers do not fly to the cities in the ban, but presumably if travelers are put off by the restrictions, they may choose other routes and airlines (US or UK ones perhaps).