by Cynthia Drescher, The Independent, May 18, 2017
There’s good news and bad news for travellers hoping for an update on the electronics ban.
The good: US and European officials met yesterday in Brussels to discuss the potential expansion of the “laptop ban” to cover transatlantic flights and decided against the move.
The bad: The ban, as it currently stands, is very much still in place and enforced. Originally introduced in March by the Trump administration on flights to the US from eight Muslim-majority countries, it was followed by a similar ban for large electronics carried on to flights to the UK from six countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. So what should you expect if your travel plans are caught up in the ban? In a nutshell: professional handling of electronics by the airline, though it doesn’t fully temper the paranoia and boredom of being separated from expensive, integral gear.
I took a 13-hour flight from Doha to New York this week and here’s what I found.
It’s already been a long travel day for me and my laptop. Together we’ve flown from Kiev to Tbilisi on Ukraine International Airlines, and from Tbilisi to Doha on Qatar Airways. Nobody at any point has brought up the electronics ban as it applies to my final destination. Not only am I exhausted by the time I get there, but also a little wired with paranoia as I wonder how my first experience with the Electronics Ban will play out.
When transiting through Doha, there are two full security checks and multiple passport-to-ticket identification checks before boarding a flight. The final security pass is done at the gate for your individual flight, according to the rules of the destination country. For US flights like mine, that means shoes off, carry-on liquids in a clear plastic bag, and any large electronics removed from luggage to be separately scanned. Passengers with devices larger than a smartphone are now pointed to a desk to the side of the security check, where two Qatar Airways staff wait to package and label electronics bound for the hold.
At the gate
After my passport and boarding pass are checked, I put my laptop, in its protective sleeve, on the desk. They ask if it’s the only electronic I’ll be checking (were I to lie, any other electronics would be found during the baggage scan immediately after). The passenger next to me is checking a laptop, an iPad, and a PlayStation 2.
While the agent twists bubble wrap and packaging tape around my sleeved laptop, I fill out a brief “declaration and acknowledgement form” with my contact and passport details, plus a description of the item enclosed (“one laptop computer”). It includes this clause:
“By signing the below, I hereby authorise Qatar Airways to collect and store my large electronic device(s) as checked baggage for safekeeping during my flight to the United States. In entrusting Qatar Airways with this device/these devices, I understand that the liability limits of the Montreal Convention (or Warsaw Convention, where applicable) apply to the provisions of this service. I hereby waive all other claims, demands, actions, and causes of action whatsoever against Qatar Airways that are inconsistent with the applicable treaty’s provisions and limits of liability related to any loss or damage to my large electronic device(s) resulting from my utilisation of this service.”
I don’t have to sign, they tell me, but not doing so means either putting them inside my luggage to be checked like a normal bag, or not flying. Weighing my options, Qatar’s complimentary packaging service seems the best way to ensure careful handling.
After the bubble wrap and tape, my laptop is placed in a sturdy box — the airline didn’t cheap-out on the materials — taped closed, and the box slapped with both a large “fragile” sticker and a label I fill out with my contact details. Then the entire box is placed in a thick, clear plastic bag, zip-tied closed, and finished with a large “business class” baggage tag.
“But I’m not in business class,” I protest.
“Every electronics box gets a business class tag. It helps with priority,” says the gate agent.
The process is the same for everyone, no matter what class you’re flying in, which is a relief. After all, my ticket was likely among the lowest level on the flight; purchasing during one of the airline’s bargain-basement “Travel Festival” online sales, I had paid £350 for a round-trip from New York to Tbilisi via Doha and had a non-upgradeable fare.
After clearing security with my boxed and bagged laptop but before entering the boarding gate area, another agent again checks my ticket and passport, plus the ID label on the box. She prints a checked baggage tag sticker and sticks it across the top of my bagged box, affixes the claim tag to my boarding pass, then places my box on a cart stacked high with other passengers’ boxes, ready for the baggage hold.
How it feels
I’m nervous – my backpack is several pounds lighter without the laptop, but I’d still rather have it with me.
Although the Qatar Airways process for checking electronics at the gate is shockingly smooth and professional, the mental anguish of being parted with an expensive device that holds so much personal information and, in my case, is so integral to my work, is the real challenge. To prepare, I had backed up all of my files and contents to an external drive even before leaving the US on the two-week trip. I’d then removed all the folders I wouldn’t be needing while travelling.
Before this flight, I had logged out of my Macbook and slipped a piece of paper with my details and flight number between the screen and the keyboard. I’d also snapped a photo of the serial number on the bottom of the computer before slipping it into its padded case, and added a luggage tag to the case.
Although I trusted Qatar Airways to an extent, having flown them several times in the past and knowing how important it is right now for their business and reputation to not screw up electronics handling during the ban, I also took the extra precaution of using my phone to photograph the steps of my laptop’s handling, should it be lost or damaged and an insurance claim filed.
The first thing everyone has asked me is how I’ll cope without my laptop. Am I bored? More than if I’d had it with me, for sure. Luckily everyone gets a seatback screen on longhaul flights with Qatar Airways, and the inflight entertainment is pretty good. I sleep for a total of five hours, watch maybe four hours of Westworld episodes, have a very light panic attack at the thought of impending deadlines and the work I could be doing on my laptop, and finally distract myself from those thoughts with a critical reading of the duty-free catalogue until it’s time for breakfast and landing in New York. I should have brought a book.
Although I checked my laptop at the gate, I get it back at regular baggage claim. On the plus side, the business class tags mean that the boxes of checked electronics are among the first to land on the belt when my flight unloads at JFK. It feels pretty secure – airport staff pull them from the claim belt to a small zone marked off by stanchions, where passengers line up to present the claim tags attached to their boarding passes, so there’s little risk of someone nicking your equipment.
My box looks virtually untouched, with no dents or even visible dirt from its journey. I rip open the plastic bag, disassemble the box, and throw it all into a large recycling bin before passing through customs and out into the arrivals hall. The bubble wrap around my laptop has been secured so well that I have to wait until I get home with a pair of scissors to free it and double-check my device. In the end, it works like normal and has suffered no ill effects.
Now I’ve done it, this is what everyone is asking me:
Am I worried it could lead to a battery fire?
Yes, of course. Lithium batteries can catch fire and, as has happened in the cases of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 in-flight incidents, quickly identifying the problem and having cabin crew react to extinguish the flames and quarantine the item in a fire containment bag is the way to prevent such incidents from becoming tragedies. With large electronic devices stored in the plane’s hold with no ease of access to address an emergency, a battery fire is an obvious concern.
Can the security services look at my stuff?
Not really. The way the electronics handover works at the airport means your laptop is packaged in front of you and, on arrival, you’re the one to unbox it. Only were you to be chosen for an extensive screening at customs would it potentially be checked (to see if it functions and isn’t, for example, a vessel for smuggling drugs).
Might my laptop get stolen?
The potential of theft seems pretty low for travellers who check their electronics at the gate, with the airline’s free handling service, but checking it in your ‘normal’ luggage raises the chances of pilfering. My advice is to keep your electronics on you through as much of your travel as possible.
Would I fly again on a route affected by the Electronics Ban?
Yes and no. I’d booked this flight months before the ban, and it’s not like there are loads of options for affordably flying from New York to Georgia. If I’d cancelled, I’d have lost my money.
Assuming nothing changes and the authorities don't change their minds about European flights, I have only one more trip in 2017 that’ll see me checking my laptop, and I’m not cancelling it.
But honestly? If they do introduce it, I’d write off booking any flights until the airlines in question have solid, protective procedures in place. Of course, none of the airlines affected by the ban want to be the first to endure a public relations catastrophe should their handling procedures cause damage or loss, so they'll be taking more care than they otherwise might. But as I figure it, I can only be lucky enough to safely check my laptop a few times before I run into some kind of problem – whether it’s confused airline staff, damage to my computer, or thieves figuring out a way to make the electronics ban their payday.