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Sunday, March 26, 2017

US Travel Electronic items Ban- Impact on Indian travellers

The major news last week is the new travel ban on electronic items enforced by US and UK Administration, effective almost immediately (Being enforced from this weekend). You might have already read the news, Narayan Hariharan has summarized the same in his blog but here’s a quick summary if it helps. Because Middle East based carriers like Emirates are primary preference for Indians flying to US, this ban will cause some inconvenience, which I intend to discuss in this post. Quick recap first

What is banned? All electronic devices other than smartphones in cabin baggage, if you're boarding in any of the 10 airports for US bound flight
What 10 airports? Dubai, Doha, Ab Dhabi, Istanbul, Jeddah, Kuwait, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh and Casablanca
Affected airlines: Emirates, Qatar, Etihad and 6 other middle eastern airlines
What needs to be done? Most Electronic devices (other than smartphones) must be kept in Check-in luggage only
Contextual Image!
Concern 1: Risk of device damage. Sensitive electronics like laptops, ipads need to be handled with care. Checked-in bags are subjected to wide range of abuses- being thrown around by baggage handling staff while loading, unloading, transfer, storage etc, exposed to elements like heat, rain, cold, loaded one above another increasing pressure on the bag at the bottom etc.  There are scenarios where some passengers do not turn up at the gate and baggage handling crew will be under pressure to identify and remove bags of those people quickly. They might end up stepping on one bag to access/check a bag not within easy reach. Now keeping a laptop as is in the check-in bag may not be safe- you will have to add some protection- thermocol or other cushion- this will take space in your bag. More “fragile” stickers will be needed.  Travel insurance today doesn’t cover damage to electronic items in checked-in in bag. For passengers with lots of stuff to carry, having to spare 2-3 kg for laptops on an already weight constrained economy baggage limit will be a strain.

Concern 2: Risk of fire: Devices with lithium ion batteries have a risk of fire- may be one in a million but with millions of passengers flying everyday, there is always a risk that it is the turn of a device in your plane next one on the line. So far guidelines were to carry power banks, Samsung Galaxy Note 7 etc only in hand bag, so that if they catch fire it can be noticed quicker and contained. Keep them in cargo hold, it takes several minutes before fire is detected and contained, could be fatal sometimes. So aviation authorities need to balance the risk of electric fire vs risk of terrorism and decide what is the better place to keep electronic stuff

Concern 3: An explosive in checked-in bag can still be detonated by a passenger carrying a smartphone. Cargo hold is just a meter or two below passenger deck, Wifi/blutooth connection is easily possible.  So the new ban is still not foolproof, unless device in checkin bag is fully switched off and battery removed. Checking every bag to ensure all devices are in switch off state is near impossible task. May be airplanes can install signal jammers in cargo hold to prevent connection. Plus since the ban is on select airports, someone determined to carryout such attack may still manage to use one of the 100+ other airports not affected by the ban.

Concern 4: Concept of stopover holiday gets even more complicated. Qatar allows passengers with significant transit time to go out of airport into city (subject to prior confirmation of transit visa). Without access to your cameras or laptops, making most of the transit time is now more difficult.

Impact on India based airlines
Air India flies direct to US from Mumbai and Delhi- isn’t really affected by the ban. Air India also has code share with many star alliance members- Lufthansa, SG, Air France etc which it can leverage.

Jet Airways partner Etihad is affected by the ban, which can impact Jet. But Jet Airways also has Amsterdam as their Europe Hub and codeshare with KLM and AF, which they can use to offset the impact of the ban. Jet has issued advisory to this effect to its passengers, but has also updated website with below banner- hinting that it will use its European hub to the max to connect to US, reducing dependency on middle east.
No other India based airlines fly to US

News from the field: It is about 48 hours since the ban is being enforced rigorously. Emirates was quick to react with a free service that lets passengers use the laptop/camera/tablet till the time they arrive at boarding gate- where same needs to be handed over to Emirates staff, to be packed and stored in the cargo hold. Meanwhile also focusing on in-flight entertainment and trying to emphasize that laptops are not really needed on-board. This is exemplary thinking and execution by Emirates. This also reminds me of a statement made by Emirates President- they didn't want to join any alliance (like star alliance) because joining an alliance limits their ability to react to market as time is needed to arrive at a consensus amongst alliance partners.

Impact on Indian travelers
Category 1: Business travelers: Business travelers often need to carry their laptops with them, so that they can work in airports- while waiting to board, at transit airport or even in-flight. Taking their laptops away will affect their productivity.  Companies may ask business travelers to opt for other airlines where restrictions doesn’t apply- Cathey Pacific, Lufthansa, BA or Singapore Airlines. Naturally these airlines will increase their price a bit knowing this advantage they have over Emirates or Qatar or Etihad, so Indian companies will lose more money flying their staff to US

Think of first class travelers who shell out 1000s of dollars for a luxurious travel, now without their favorite gadgets (Etihad has a 22000 USD suite- now even if you shell out 22000 USD, you can’t have your kindle or ipad with you)

Category 2: Budget Tourists:  Tourists usually book whatever airlines offer cheapest fares. Now they can’t carry cameras, laptops etc in cabin baggage, so they will be forced to check them in. It is inconvenience but I think they will probably live with it provided savings on ticket price justifies the inconvenience.  If they can avoid long transit time options then they can possibly manage without a major inconvenience.

Impact will be high on ultra-low cost airlines who charge extra for check-in bag- guests will almost always have to buy checkin-baggage now, which compromises cost advantage. But no ultralow cost airline is affected by this travel ban yet. (Air Asia flies to Hawaii from India)

Tourists can plan such that instead of going direct to US, they can fly first to either Canada/Europe or South America, have a quick holiday or transit there and then fly onward to US. Of course this has its own disadvantages- visa needs, extra flight money and so on, but in some scenarios it may be viable

Category 3: Family visitors: Family members will have to make their flight sans their kindles, ipads, gaming devices etc. Kids will be forced to rely more on smartphone which are allowed. More headache. Those who can afford few hundred dollars more will probably shift to airlines that don’t have this restriction. Others will be forced to travel without gadgets and be innovative to keep themselves busy in-flight and during transit.

On the positive side:
  • May be middle-east based carriers will reduce fares further- to make strong value proposition that inconvenience flying with them is still worth because of huge savings.
  • Business travellers can use it as an excuse to relax while traveling, instead of being asked to work even during travel
  • May be families will travel without too many gadgets and spend more time talking to each other
  • May be people will buy real books, play real games with other humans and be more attentive to things around them, than getting lost in their gadgets.
  • May be smartphone will evolve even more to an extent that consumers do not feel the need for laptop, kindle, tab or camera
  • May be someone will make a smartphone bigger than all other electronic devices, thus allowing the laptops and cameras in Hand baggage!?!
Open Questions:
1. What if a passenger buys a new device in transit airport? Is it allowed ? From what I sense, no. Doesn't matter where you bought it- not allowed in cabin bag.

2. Is power-bank/charges allowed? If not how to charge the smartphone? From what I sense these are allowed.

3. Are US airports now having two separate arrivals/Security checkpoints now? One to check passengers from these 10 airports to see if they are carrying electronics and one for everyone else... May be they will only do random checks or put some more staff at origin airports.

4. GoPro is smaller than a smartphone- Is it allowed? 3 parameters- length, width and height define size- goPro is smaller by length and height but is wider than smartphone. My guess is security staff will object.

Way forward: Need to wait and watch how long this stands. Many governments are working with USA to assure them that security at their airports is at par with USA and there's no need to discriminate and selectively enforce this ban, putting the home airlines into a disadvantage.
Indian Bloggers

2 comments :

SandeepaChetan said...

Hey Shrinidhi! It is a bad news. As it is Indian travellers have many hurdles like visa, inconvenient departure timings, etc. Now this is new addition. The list is growing. Thanks to your article giving us complete understanding about US travel norms. Hope someday this will change.

Shrinidhi Hande said...

Yes, I think it will only get worse... Travel as much as you can before it gets worse