A wider personal electronics ban could cost flyers $1 billion

The airline industry is urging regulators in U.S. and Europe to reconsider a plan to expand the current ban on some electronic devices on U.S.-bound flights. So far, the ban applies only to certain airports in the Middle East and North Africa, but U.S. and European authorities are discussing a wider ban that would extend to Europe as well. 

However, the industry argues that such an expansion would cost travelers more than $1 billion annually because of lost productivity, among other reasons, and do little to improve safety.

The industry made its concerns known in a May 16 letter obtained by CBS News' Kris Van Cleave. It came from Alexandre de Juniac, director general and CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and was sent to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and EC Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc. De Juniac wrote that the industry had "serious concern regarding the negative impact of any expansion of the ban on personal electronic devices."

The new policy would affect 390 flights daily between the U.S. and Europe, far more than the 350 flights weekly from the Middle East and North Africa subject to the current rule, which the U.S. announced in March.

"Our initial estimates indicate that any expansion to Europe will have significantly higher negative impacts than the existing measures," de Juniac wrote. "In 2016, 31 million passengers departed European airports on flights to the U.S. of which 3.5 million were connecting from flights that originated outside of Europe."

Echoing comments made by the Global Business Travel Alliance (GBTA), the IATA argued that some business travelers would cancel trips rather than risk having confidential data on their devices lost because they would have to be stored in an airliner's cargo hold. Business travelers are trained to keep their company-owned laptops, tablets and other gadgets with them at all times for security reasons. Moreover, nearly half of all business travelers said in a recent survey they want to stay connected in flight so they can get work done.

A DHS spokesperson couldn't immediately be reached for comment for this story. DHS officials have previously said no decisions about the ban have been made and conversations with U.S. airlines remain ongoing. They're weighing the advantages of the ban against the disruptions it would cause. Officials have said a decision could come in the next few weeks.

In the IATA's letter, de Juniac said airlines are worried about increased costs due to the extra baggage handling the new rule would require and the subsequent departure delays. Carriers would also face additional liabilities if personal electronic devices are lost or stolen. In addition, increasing the numbers of lithium ion batteries in an airline cargo hold could create a potential safety hazard, de Juniac wrote.

"I definitely think it will change consumer behavior," said Patrick Surry, chief data scientist for Hopper, a fare forecasting app. Hopper is planning to warn consumers if their flights would be subject to the ban.

"If some flights' options allow certain electronics or provide substitutes," Surry said, "it may sway the traveler's decision about which airline to fly. Travelers will also be less inclined to purchase flights without entertainment systems if you're prohibited from bringing your own device."

Given the negative publicity the industry has endured for mistreating customers, airlines are reluctant to anger business and first-class travelers, who generate about 40 percent of the revenue on transatlantic routes, according to Hopper. The site estimates that 105,000 seats fly between Europe and the U.S. daily, about 15,000 of which are in business and first class.

During a recent security summit in Washington, D.C., the industry urged regulators to adopt "short-term" measures to counter the potential threat from electronic devices. Among the recommendations were to use "explosive trace detection" technology at primary and secondary security checkpoints. 

The IATA also supports using security officers trained in detecting suspicious behavior and dogs able to sniff out explosives. And it backs the use of so-called trusted traveler programs, which enable people to clear airport security on an expedited basis, and to expand other pre-flight security screenings.

De Juniac added that the airline industry recognizes "that the US, the UK and other states have compelling reasons to mandate the implementation of countermeasures in response to credible threat intelligence." However, he wrote, "we urge all regulators to weigh the impacts of such measures on the passenger, the economy and the airlines and therefore consider implementing the above actions to support our shared objective in this regard."

  • Jonathan Berr On Twitter»

    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.