by Simon Calder, The Independent, March 22, 2017
Since the ban on large electronic devices in the cabins of flights from six Middle Eastern and North African countries was announced, questions have flooded in to The Independent travel desk. Simon Calder, travel correspondent (and a former security officer at Gatwick airport), tackles the key issues.
Which airports and airlines are affected?
All airports in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey with direct flights to the UK. In the case of Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia, the only flights are from their capitals — Amman, Beirut and Tunis — to Heathrow. But from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey there are flights from multiple airports to a range of UK destinations.
Initially the airline most affected is British Airways, which flies from all the countries except Tunisia, as well as national carriers from each of the states. From Turkey, Atlas and Pegasus are included as well as Turkish Airlines.
Other UK airlines that are currently affected, or will be when the main summer season begins in May, include easyJet, Jet2, Monarch, Thomas Cook and Thomson.
What is the new rule, and why is it being introduced?
On direct flights from any of the countries to the UK, any electronic device bigger than a mobile phone (specifically 16 x 9.3 x 1.5cm) cannot be carried in the cabin, and must be checked into the hold of the aircraft.
The ban is similar to a US prohibition which was brought in 24 hours earlier, and is based on the same basic intelligence: that bomb makers belonging to Al Qaeda in the Middle East have improved their skills and geographic spread, and are now actively recruiting would-be suicide bombers to attempt to bring down an aircraft with explosives concealed in consumer electronics. The belief of the Government is that excluding anything larger than a smartphone from the cabin will reduce the risk. The Government says “our top priority will always be to maintain the safety of British nationals”, so they must have intelligence that has prompted this move.
Aren’t security staff and checkpoint technology supposed to remove that risk?
Yes, but there are concerns about the thoroughness of security checks at some airports in the countries on the list. For example, Sharm el Sheikh airport, serving Egypt’s premier holiday resort, is still on a Foreign Office no-fly list following the crash of a Metrojet plane in 2015 with the loss of 224 lives. It is believed that the Airbus to St Petersburg was destroyed by a device placed on board at Sharm el Sheikh airport.
How many people will it affect?
Initially, I estimate around 5,000 people will be on flights that meet the criteria — though this will likely rise to 8,000 or 10,000 once the main summer season gets going in May. Turkey is easily the most affected country.
What will passengers notice?
At the overseas airport, they will be asked to check in any “offending” electronic devices before going through the security check. However, foreign security personnel are not being asked to enforce the ban at the main central search. A secondary search will be made at the gate, when all cabin baggage will be hand-inspected and any electronics that break the new rules will be taken away and consigned to the hold. Clearly there is no guarantee about whether, or in what condition the item(s) will turn up.
Who will be hit hardest?
The people who will be in the most unenviable position are the thousand or so travellers who each day flying in transit via Istanbul airport on Turkish Airlines from Asia and Africa, heading for Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh. While the ban applies only from Istanbul, in practice passengers will be encouraged to check them in to the hold before the first leg of the journey from, say, Hong Kong or Cape Town to the Turkish transit point. They, along with travellers on “ordinary” short haul flights from places such as Egypt and Turkey, can only hope that their expensive tablets, laptops or camera are protected from any petty criminals who might rummage through baggage, and check it in with fingers crossed in the hope that it will turn up intact at baggage reclaim at Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester or Edinburgh.
What are the airlines saying?
Publicly, relatively little apart from pointing to the new rules for affected passengers. British Airways, for example, is saying “If you are part-way through your journey (e.g. on a short business trip or holiday) or about to start your journey in one of these countries and feel that you are unable to immediately comply with the new UK government requirements, then we will be able to rebook your flight to a later date so that you are able to meet them. Please contact us to discuss your requirements.”
Privately, airlines are concerned about what is evidently regarded as an escalated security threat, as well as the inferences the travelling public may make on the basis of the new policy about aviation security.
Does this point to wider security risks in those six countries?
No. There are already wide-ranging warnings from the Foreign Office about the nations on the list, including advice against all but essential travel to the whole of Tunisia.