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Aviation securityWhy banning laptops from airplane cabins doesn’t make sense

By Cassandra Burke Robertson and Irina D. Manta

Published 22 May 2017

Recent reports suggest that terrorists can now create bombs so thin that they cannot be detected by the current X-ray screening that our carry-on bags undergo. In an effort to protect against such threats, the U.S is considering banning laptops and other large electronic devices in the passenger cabins of airplanes flying between Europe and the United States. This would extend a ban already in place on flights from eight Middle Eastern countries. It is tempting to think that any level of cost and inconvenience is sensible if it reduces the risk of an attack even a little. But risks, inherent in flying and even driving, can never be avoided entirely. So when weighing policies that are designed to make us safer, it is important to consider both their costs and potential effectiveness. Unfortunately, whether the benefits justify the costs is too often not the yardstick used by officials determining whether to pursue these types of policies. Instead, it is more likely that political considerations motivate the adoption of restrictive policies, which in the end actually do little to protect citizens’ security.

Recent reports suggest that terrorists can now create bombs so thin that they cannot be detected by the current X-ray screening that our carry-on bags undergo.

In an effort to protect against such threats, the U.S is considering banning laptops and other large electronic devices in the passenger cabins of airplanes flying between Europe and the United States. This would extend a ban already in place on flights from eight Middle Eastern countries.

Given the significant disruption such a policy would cause tens of thousands of passengers a day, a logical question any economist might ask is: Is it worth it?

It is tempting to think that any level of cost and inconvenience is sensible if it reduces the risk of an attack even a little. But risks, inherent in flying and even driving, can never be avoided entirely.

So when weighing policies that are designed to make us safer, it is important to consider both their costs and potential effectiveness.

Unfortunately, whether the benefits justify the costs is too often not the yardstick used by officials determining whether to pursue these types of policies. Instead, as law professors who have researched how the government’s travel policies affect civil liberties, we have found that it is more likely that political considerations motivate the adoption of restrictive policies, which in the end actually do little to protect citizens’ security.

Expanding a ban
The current laptop policy regarding some flights from the Middle East was put in place in March apparently as a result of intelligence that ISIS militants were training to get laptop bombs past security screeners and onto planes. The U.K. adopted a similar rule.

The Department of Homeland Security wants to extend that ban to transatlantic flights. This would cause major disruption and “logistical chaos.” Approximately 65 million people a year fly between Europe and the United States.

Business travelers are concerned about the loss of productivity and the risk that a checked laptop with sensitive information could be damaged, stolen or subjected to intrusive search. Families worry about traveling without electronic distractions to soothe tired and uncomfortable children. Airlines expect a loss of business as people opt out of transatlantic travel altogether.