by Allen J. Sheinman | May 16, 2017
Kevin Mitchell, left, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, issued an open letter addressed to Violeta Bulc, European commissioner for transport, in Brussels, Belgium, outlining questions to ask the U.S. Department of Homeland Security regarding the DHS' recently proposed expanded electronics ban on some flights from Europe to the U.S. The text of the letter is as follows:
Dear Ms. Bulc:
It has been reported in the press that you and your colleagues will be meeting this Wednesday in Brussels with representatives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, led by Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke, to discuss a potential electronics ban on flights from some number of European airports to the U.S.
DHS has told the press that the possible ban is not from a specific threat, but rather from longstanding concerns. This revelation makes plain that the current U.S. ban of electronic devices on flights from the Middle East -- without industry consultation -- was an unwarranted overreaction and is inconveniencing travelers and financially harming carriers from the Middle East. (The Business Travel Coalition opposed that decree.)
That current ban, which should be ended until DHS satisfactorily answers important questions, affects 350 flights a week from the Middle East and North Africa. A ban from Europe could affect 3,500 fights a week this summer and 65 million passengers per year. The economic risk to airlines and the travel and tourism industry is an order of magnitude greater than the threat from pandemics, volcanoes or wars. This is serious.
Very importantly, recent press coverage has almost exclusively focused on the negative impact to productivity from business travelers not being able to access laptops while flying across the world through Middle East airports, or to the U.S. from European airports. However, that lost productivity is only a very small part of the problem.
There is a much larger issue that will slam business travel demand, harming airlines, the travel and tourism ecosystem, organizations fielding business travelers and economic activity levels because of lost transactions. Simply put, the ripple effects of this could create an economic tsunami of the likes of which terrorists are dreaming of but instead will be at the hand of government directive.
Most organizations -- corporations, universities, governments -- will not allow employees to check laptops, most of which have sensitive information on them. IT chiefs and risk managers are very conservative and assume everything on a laptop is sensitive - emails, contacts, hiring, marketing and sales strategies, new product diagrams, etc.
As such, well beyond lost inflight productivity, the significantly larger consequence of a potential electronics ban is if, for example, a business traveler is going to London for a week, he will not have his laptop with him. That for most business travelers will be an absolute no-go, deal breaker. That's where a dramatic falloff in business travel demand would be based. A monthly trip to London becomes a once-a-quarter one.
It only takes a relatively small number of business travelers to stay home to make a flight unprofitable and consequently drive down demand and yields on all business and first-class seat sales. There is evidence that this already is happening. Despite creative efforts by Gulf carriers such as gate-side check-in, separate secure inflight storage and dedicated arrival pickup, not to mention onboard loaner tablets, early indications are the negative impact on bookings has been significant.
Ms. Bulc, I respectfully submit questions that DHS should answer so that you might effectively gauge the quality of the analytical process surrounding the DHS announcement of the potential ban and the assessment by [the DHS] of the perceived threat and its probability and magnitude of potential impact.
1. What security-measure alternatives to an outright electronics ban were analyzed, but rejected?
2. What would be more regrettable -- not imposing an electronics ban and living with TSA-sanctioned risk-management policy and implications, or implementing such a ban with the knowledge that with over 150,000 EU-U.S. flights per year, a deadly fire in the cargo hold on a flight emanating from hundreds of lithium batteries in the cargo hold, a thousand miles out over the Atlantic, could be a poorly considered attempt to cheat fate?
3. If the airline industry goes into a financial tailspin as a consequence of such a ban -- is the security threat so great as to let the industry go under?
4. If a significant number of U.S. and EU travel and tourism industry jobs are lost, is the potential security threat so great as to accept that?
5. Through overzealousness, how great is the risk that our governments are in effect giving terrorists the overall economic destabilizing victory that they seek?
Please be strong on behalf of all airline industry stakeholders in the EU and U.S. and push back on this potential ban and the existing ban from Middle East and North African airports. If media quotes of DHS officials are inaccurate, and there are indeed specific, credible and substantial threats, then I would encourage the exploration of industry security experts' recommendations short of an all-out ban.

Kevin Mitchell
Business Travel Coalition