Would a laptop and tablet ban enhance air travel security?

Computer science professor Sheldon H. Jacobson discusses the proposed Department of Homeland Security ban of laptop and tablet computers in the passenger cabins of certain flights.Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

American and European officials are considering a potential ban on laptop and tablet computers in the passenger cabins of trans-Atlantic flights to the U.S., according to the Department of Homeland Security. Sheldon H. Jacobson, a professor of computer science, studies a variety of mathematical algorithms that address societal problems of national interest. In an interview with News Bureau physical sciences editor Lois Yoksoulian, he discusses his concern over the impending DHS device ban decision.


In regards to general airport screening policy, how does the newly proposed ban on devices differ from what is currently in place?

Peter Neffenger, the previous Transportation Security Administration administrator, and his predecessor, John Pistole, championed risk-based security as a strategy to secure the nation’s air system. Their approach focused on identifying risky people first, and threat items second. The newly proposed ban, if approved, will reverse this approach. A ban will force us back to the Stone Age of aviation security, where all travelers are treated as potential terrorist threats.

What does the perceived need for this ban say about the effectiveness of our current airport security measures?

It is accepted that explosive devices can be hidden in larger electronics like laptops. The critical factor is detonation. By separating passengers from their devices, detonation becomes more difficult. By requiring such separation, the TSA is suggesting that it lacks sufficient capabilities to detect such explosives and sufficient intelligence to identify who would detonate such a device on an airplane. If either one could be achieved, the ban would be unnecessary.

What are some of the specific safety concerns related to laptop and tablet computers being stored in cargo bays during flight?

The risk of lithium-ion battery fires, albeit small, becomes measureable given the volume of unattended devices that would be stored in checked baggage. This begs the question: Which is more of a risk, a laptop bomb or a laptop battery fire? Theft of such items is also likely to rise because thieves will know that most bags will probably contain a valuable device. The ban may also inspire terrorists to explore alternative approaches to conceal explosives that cannot be managed or screened.

It is likely that check-in procedures and screening will require more time if such a ban is introduced, potentially causing flight delays and missed connections stateside. Other than headaches and aggravation, what problems might these delays cause?

Travel to and from Europe may be reduced, impacting both tourism and economic activity. Direct flights from Europe to the U.S. may be avoided by connecting through countries not on the banned list, likely leading to an expansion of the ban on flights from all foreign countries, including Canada and Mexico.

What if TSA were to take this a step further and implement a ban on laptops and tablets on domestic flights?

Many people rely on using their devices while in flight. A ban on laptop and tablet use during domestic trips could reduce the number of people, particularly high-value business travelers, wanting to travel. This reduced desire to fly could place a financial headwind on domestic air travel, not unlike what happened just after 9/11. The airlines could descend into an economic tailspin, prompting price hikes in airfare and a decline in both domestic business and tourism. Although these consequences are extreme, they are well within the realm of possibility.

How does the TSA PreCheck program fit into the aviation security equation?

TSA PreCheck was introduced as a realistic compromise between security and efficiency, allowing for 50 to 60 percent of screenings to be skipped for previously vetted passengers. A better investment is to move this number up to 85 percent, by offering PreCheck at no cost to all travelers who fly three or more times per year. Such a policy has been analyzed and is shown to be cost-neutral, enhance air system security based on risk-based principles, and make flying more convenient and less burdensome for the majority of flyers. Banning laptops is a step backward, not forward, in protecting the nation’s air system, and symptomatic that the war on terrorism is being lost at airports.

Source:Lois E Yoksoulian, Physical Sciences Editor/Illinois News Bureau