It's now tougher to travel to the Middle East.
Recently, the government announced a limited ban on laptops and other large electronics in airplane carry-on bags. The new rule applies only to flights out of eight countries and was reportedly issued in response to intelligence about a threat to smuggle explosives disguised inside laptops.
For business travelers, this promises to be an enormous inconvenience. Long haul flights are the new office. Having to spend ten-plus hours in the air without access to a laptop, iPad or Kindle won't just be boring… it will mean days of lost work for lawyers, executives, consultants and other knowledge workers.
Yet they're not the only ones who should pay attention to this ban. Whether flying for business or not, this should be on every traveler's radar. Here are ten reasons why:
This ban appears to transcend politics.
Critics of the Donald Trump administration will be tempted to write off the laptop ban as an act of political distraction during a difficult moment, but this appears to have significant support across both political and national lines. Congressmen who otherwise oppose the new administration, such as Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, have come out in support of the measure, and countries such as the U.K. and Canada have also taken the warnings seriously.
In other words, a reasonable cross-section of nations and politicians have embraced this as a credible threat.
In 2003, Richard Reid tried to blow up an airplane by hiding a bomb in his shoes. In the years since security experts have questioned the effectiveness this tactic yet here we are 14 years later still taking our shoes off at the airport.
Once in place, security measures have a tendency to stick around. They rarely get unwound for two reasons: First, politics rarely allows for that. It's very easy to paint someone as soft on terrorism and far harder to activate voters on the basis of civil liberties and inconvenience.
Second, credible threats come in a sort of Pandora's Box. Although intelligence can defeat an individual plan, once an idea has been made public someone can always try again.
If security needs to watch out for laptop bombs today, that won't change in five years.
Although U.S. intelligence has identified eight countries from which it believes there's a current threat, there's no reason for it to remain that way.
Bad actors from those eight countries could simply travel from someplace else or catch a connecting flight. Other criminals and terrorists from other countries could latch on to this idea.
As noted above, an idea is fluid. Once out, it's out and if packing a bomb inside a laptop is a reasonable, credible way to smuggle explosives past security then security will have to adapt worldwide. In other words, the question is not which flights laptops have been pulled from today. It's whether laptops will remain on any flights tomorrow.
The U.S. has responded to terrorism with a fear that sometimes approaches hysteria. Americans are deeply unused to feeling threatened in their own country, an artifact of being a massive nation surrounded by a moat and two friends.
As a result, airport security often goes too far and has been reasonably criticized as "security theater." Take, for example, the liquid ban. While a terrorist could make a bomb out of liquid components, it would be highly unstable, difficult to transport and even more difficult to assemble from the passenger seat of an airplane.
This isn't the case in the laptop ban. As engineers have noted in the past, the lithium-ion batteries common to most laptops could be effectively repurposed to discharge in a reasonably powerful localized explosion. What's more, many laptop components (especially batteries) do show up on X-ray scanners as particularly dense, making them potentially effective places in which to hide explosives.
Security experts haven't raised this as a problem in the past, but that doesn't mean they're crazy to bring up now.
Probably the first reaction most fliers have had to this rule is simple: "How will my laptop survive?" It won't be easy.
Between ground crew handling, conveyer belts and the weight of other bags, checked luggage is never a safe place for valuables.
It can get bad. As a traveler, I have seen carriage bolts rated at 500 lbs of shearing pressure snapped off on the other side of a flight. Travelers often find their bags ripped open, and as one baggage handler interviewed by the Huffington Post put it, "luggage takes a beating."
Don't take chances. If you're on a flight that requires checked electronics, pack the laptop in a sturdy, hard-shell case and bury it in the middle of your suitcase. If at all possible, try to gate-check the luggage so that it goes through less trouble getting on the plane. It's not perfect, but it will help.
"The rule is troubling on several fronts," wrote Danny O'Brien, International Director with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Devices are vulnerable to being stolen or damaged, which is why people don't check them."
"They may also be searched without the traveler's knowledge," he added.
Data searches (when TSA agents demand the login for your phone, laptop and other devices) are becoming increasingly common. The U.S. is conducting them far more frequently than ever before and some politicians would like this to become a standard part of the border screening process.
As O'Brien points out, travelers forced to leave their devices in checked luggage are very exposed to unknown searches. For business travelers who deal in sensitive data this might be an enormous concern. Many, such as lawyers and executives, cannot have even well-intentioned government agents perusing their files. If that's a concern the first step is to upgrade passwords and data security before handing off that suitcase.
Travelers on U.S. flights are not allowed to use just any lock on their luggage anymore. The reason is so that terrorists cannot smuggle explosives onto the plane. It would defeat the entire purpose of security, after all, if checked baggage provided a completely anonymous conduit onto the aircraft.
There are many TSA approved locks, however. These will keep out most prying eyes, but allow security officers to open at need.
With high-value devices like laptops and cameras in checked bags the opportunities for theft will go through the roof. Even though the TSA has a master key, these locks still eliminate crimes of opportunity. Someone can only open your bag under supervision. That's much better than risking valuable devices with no protection.
Despite your best efforts to pack well and secure your bags, there is a chance that things will go wrong. Luggage in the cargo hold is still exposed to the possibility of damage, temperature and theft, so secure the most irreplaceable asset on any device: your data.
Get a small hard drive; many today come no larger than a smart phone and can still hold virtually everything worth saving on the average hard drive. Carry that on the plane even if you have to check the laptop itself.
If worse comes to worse you can always buy a new laptop, but it's harder to replace years of work and data. By that same token…
There are many forms of travel insurance available on the market. This is one of the times when you should get some.
As noted above, it's impossible to completely protect your devices during travel. In checked luggage they will be exposed to stresses and pressure that can easily destroy a delicate piece of equipment.
So at least make sure that, if this happens, you can get your money back. Insure your most valuable devices, and make absolutely sure that the policy covers damage in transit or by the airline. Not all policies will.
It will be tempting to think that the airlines will make this right, and many may try to, but if devices start getting damaged, it won't be long before customer service stops wanting to deal with this issue and just starts putting customers off. Don't sign up to wait in that line.
For business travelers, your boss, partners and clients will probably expect you to be online during a particularly long flight. This may not necessarily be a good thing, and is certainly a sign of the always-on culture, but it's the way the 21st Century works.
Make sure to let them know that you won't be there.
There's nothing more frustrating for everyone involved than having someone just go dark for an entire work day. Emails pile up, documents go unread and pretty soon entire communication threads just turn into: "Has he responded yet?"
Put up an out-of-office message and let people know you'll be gone. It will save a lot of hassle upon arrival.