Surprise security measures will hit business travellers and children – and WiFI providers and…everyone

22 March, 2017

The best thing, from an industry point of view, regarding today’s shock security news is that technology should quickly catch up with the challenge that has now been raised.

Overnight, US and UK government officials announced an in cabin ban on all electronic devices larger than a mobile phone for certain Middle East airports and specific carriers. The enhancements prohibit electronic devices larger than a smart phone onboard aircraft in carry-on luggage, which must be secured in checked luggage.

At first thought it does seem remarkable that screening technology cannot tell the difference between a bomb and a computer, but some very clever and informed people have decided that the risk is too great to take the chance. It is clear however that there can be no commercial argument that could seek to reverse this decision.

That it has been done so hastily and without a consistent position between the US and the UK (for example which airlines are affected eg the US does not include American carriers who all conveniently do not have services to the affected airports, while the UK’s does include British carriers), suggests however the usual disregard that governments have towards sensible airline economics: Did it really have to be just four days’ notice? Is it really those countries that are the vital ones? Why does the US include the Gulf carriers and the UK doesn’t? Will other countries follow suit?

At this stage there is little logic in what has been done. But that is the status quo.

The impacts are widespread and most unwelcome

As an example, the extent of the impact spreads to 17,679 seats a day to the US and 15,239 to the UK:

Daily seats and passengers to the US by affected airport

Note: Based on monthly seat and passenger data from Sept 2016.

Source: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and US BTS.

Daily seats and passengers to the UK by affected country

Note: Based on monthly seat and passenger data from Sept 2016.

Source: CAPA – Centre for Aviation, OAG and UK CAA.

The ban will impact travellers’ ground experience prior to boarding and while transiting. If a business traveller checks in two hours before their flight, use of the lounge to complete work would not be possible, as their computer has been checked through to their destination. Economy passengers who planned on using their tablet to pass time, while waiting for a connecting flight will be left with little or no entertainment.

Business travellers (and their employers) will find it hard to use an airline without laptops

Laptop use on long haul flights has become ubiquitous and, apart from a few travellers who look at long haul flights as an opportunity to switch off, most road warriors will have the simple thought: I cannot afford to fly on an airline where I can’t use my laptop.

The commercial impact will be immediate. As this influences a valuable travel segment, it will have a considerable negative effect on the airlines involved – one that comes straight off the top line. There will be travellers today who are changing their travel plans to buy away from the airlines concerned.

Australian and New Zealand travellers who fly on one of the Gulf carriers to the US – not a widely used route, although there are many who do find it convenient to access the US east coast – will be in the odd position that they can use their laptop to the Gulf hub, but will then have to check it for the next sector, not an easy proposition. The impact for other geographically based travellers will be much broader and may result in a requirement to check in devices from their origin, if travelling through on of the affected airports.

Fortunately, for some unexplained reason, on the much more relevant UK route, there is no such ban in place (yet). So, for now at least, Qantas (and Emirates) are largely unaffected on the kangaroo route. Why there is a distinction made between the US and the UK in this respect has not been announced.

Emirates has cleverly turned the issue to promoting their extensive inflight entertainment system, but neither business travellers - nor their employers, who expect them to work - will be greatly impressed by that. Perhaps this can contribute to a new life-work balance.

And for those poor parents who can’t silence their kids with an iPad

The problem goes much wider than just those busy workers. The iPad has become a vital travel accessory for any parent travelling with children. Perhaps watching on a small smartphone screen will be some sort of substitute, but this is a definite no-no for many, even given the best inflight variety in the world. Young children in particular have a very defined list of what they want to watch – often many times over. Watching an unfamiliar in-seat screen doesn’t cut the mustard.

Then there are the bigger kids who get withdrawal symptoms when they go for five minutes without playing their favourite games or binge watching their favourite television show. In short there is an extensive list of potential passengers who are going to be strongly disincentivised from travelling on the listed airlines – and this will have an immediate cost for the airlines concerned.

It comes at a time when wifi is just beginning to become a key inflight feature

Inflight WiFI has become a real bonus, not just for road warriors but all travellers passing the time. Inflight email is becoming de rigueur, but it is also becoming a valuable revenue stream for airlines who charge for this added service (and who may be thinking of using it for ancillary revenues).

The airlines involved in the bans (which include the other mega-hub carrier Turkish Airlines) are among the biggest investors in WiFI systems. There will be some unhappy providers today, as they re-examine what is likely to happen with this new security issue.

Logic suggests other countries may follow suit

There has been no statement yet from Australian or New Zealand officials about whether or not the ban will be extended to travel in and out of Australasia, however if this is a security issue in some countries, there is no clear logic why it should not appear in others.

Meanwhile, for someone there is a tech opportunity – to develop a scanning system that can distinguish between a legitimate laptop and another variety.