by Kevin Mitchell | March 22, 2017

Kevin Mitchell, Business Travel CoalitionThe U.S. Transportation Security Administration has banned virtually all consumer electronics except cell phones from carry-on luggage from 10 airports in the Middle East and Africa with service provided to the U.S. by nine foreign airlines. The airports are located in Amman, Jordan; Cairo, Egypt; Istanbul, Turkey; Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Kuwait City, Kuwait; Casablanca, Morocco; Doha, Qatar; Dubai and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates -- all destinations that are U.S. allies. The banned items include laptops, tablets and much more.

The TSA points to a changed threat environment as rationale but indicates that there is no specific or credible threat of an imminent attack. The ban does not apply to U.S. airlines because there are no nonstop flights from those airports to the United States. However, why was Lagos, Nigeria, not included, as Delta Air Lines has a nonstop flight to that severely security-challenged country? The ban only applies to the last point of departure to the U.S. As such, and consequently, a laptop-carrying passenger could board an Air France flight at Istanbul and connect in Paris on Delta Air Lines to New York.

If a bad actor seeks to cause harm to U.S.-bound aircraft, all that is necessary is to fly from these 10 airports on U.S. airlines' alliance partners connecting in Europe to the U.S. Moreover, a terrorist intent on bombing a plane with a laptop will simple fly out of France, Germany or Britain to the U.S. Making this ban even more questionable is that Abu Dhabi has sophisticated airport security operations sufficient to qualify for preclearance with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers located there.

Many TSA observers will no doubt question this ban. Few aviation experts would suggest that it is prudent to load an aircraft hold with hundreds of electronics with lithium batteries, some of which could be overcharged or damaged. If a battery catches fire in an aircraft cabin, as with the Samsung Note 7, it can be dealt with promptly. A fire in the hold a thousand miles out in the Atlantic Ocean is another matter.

However, passengers have even more to be worried about with this ban.

The TSA has implored travelers for years not to put valuables in their checked baggage because of theft and damage from handling. Now, $1,000 laptops, tablets, e-readers, portable DVD players, electronic game units, travel printers and scanners, and cameras will have to be checked. Photojournalists traveling on business will have to check equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars. No doubt leisure and business travelers will now have to take risks in checking these valuables, or purchase what will become increasingly expensive insurance. And parents will be at a loss as to how to keep their children occupied.

Importantly, the productivity hit on business travelers and their organizations will be significant, if not intolerable. Here's the U.S. government's guidance: "TSA recommends passengers transferring at one of the 10 affected airports place any large personal electronic devices in their checked bags upon check-in at their originating airport." So, travelers departing Ahmedabad, India, connecting through one of the affected Gulf airports to New York City will be deprived of their laptops for 19 hours.

Such a ban is simply unworkable for most business travelers; they need to be productive during their trips. Many business travelers do not check luggage, even on long flights, as it slows them down upon arrival at baggage claim. Now they will have to check their electronics, with many paying for the privilege. Of deeper concern will be trade secrets and other sensitive and valuable information that are stored on many business travelers' laptops that could be copied or stolen.

There are some 250 international airports serving the United States. Using U.S. airlines' alliance partners, or simply flying from one of the other 240 airports, represents a relatively easy workaround to this ban. Unless there is actually a known threat from these 10 airports that the U.S government desires not to share, by extended logic electronics should be banned from all airports serving the States. This current ban harms business-traveler productivity, dampens demand for inbound U.S. travel, and gives competitive advantages to U.S. airlines and their alliance partners -- who have been pursuing protectionist strategies against the Middle East carriers.

At a bare minimum, the TSA should approve a process at these 10 airports whereby those travelers needing their laptops during flight could have an option of perhaps additional screening and turning their laptops on in the presence of a security officer, which is already the practice at Abu Dhabi International Airport.

Kevin Mitchell is founder of the Business Travel Coalition (610-999-9247; [email protected]), established in 1994 to interpret industry and government policies and practices and provide a platform so that the managed travel community can influence issues of strategic importance to their organizations.