Rumoured European transatlantic electronics ban could have $1 billion impact on industry

The past days have seen much speculation and increasing media coverage over a possible extension by the United States of America of the current ban on the carriage of large personal electronic devices (PEDs) aboard US-bound flights departing from selected Middle East and North African airports to US-bound flights departing from an unspecified number of European airports.

The US and the European Union (EU) have a long-standing and fruitful co-operation on security and in particular in the area of aviation security, but seemingly remain in the dark about the motives to deliver this extended electronics ban. While airports across Europe have started to formulate plans for the enhanced security arrangement a letter from Dimitris Avramopoulos, commissioner for migration, home Affairs and citizenship and Violeta Bulc, commissioner for transport at the EU has urged for better collaboration across the Atlantic.

“We share the concerns you have about the security and safety of air passengers. The threats we face are in common,” said the letter, before highlighting a common interest to “work closely together to address developing threats in aviation, in advance of any potential applications of new security measures to air carriers” and identify “the best possible ways to mitigate any security concerns that may have been identified”.

“It is important that information concerning the threat to civil aviation that concerns EU airports be made accessible in order to develop a shared assessment of risks and a common response which is robust, proportionate and in the interests of our common security,” added Mr Avramopoulos and Ms Bulc in the letter.

It has now emerged that Mr Avramopoulos and Ms Bulc have just hosted a delegation from the US in Brussels, led by Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke, to discuss issues related to aviation security and safety. At the meeting, both sides exchanged information on the “serious evolving threats to aviation security” and approaches to “confronting such threats”.

“Participants provided insight into existing aviation security standards and detection capabilities as well as recent security enhancements on both sides of the Atlantic related to large electronic devices placed in checked baggage,” they said in a joint statement.

The US and the EU reaffirmed a commitment to continue working closely together on aviation security generally to further assess shared risks and solutions for protecting airline passengers, whilst ensuring the smooth functioning of global air travel; this process potentially prescribing a roadmap to the increased security levels.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents more than 250 airlines in more than 100 countries, estimated the ban would cost more than $1 billion annually in lost time to passengers. The global consulting firm ICF estimated that 30% of the nearly 100,000 passengers who fly from Europe to the U.S. every day are business travellers who will be affected by a ban and almost one million hours of productivity would be lost per day.

In a letter to both the EU’s Violeta Bulc and US secretary of homeland security, John Kelly, IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac warns member carriers have “serious concerns regarding the negative impact any expansion of the ban on PEDs in the aircraft cabin will have on airline passengers, commercial aviation and the global economy” and urged the agencies to adopt additional airport safety measures rather than expand the current, controversial ban on PEDs.

The association expects that an expansion of the ban to flights from Europe will have “significantly higher negative impacts than the existing measures”. Citing potential difficulties for passengers and airlines, Mr de Juniac notes businesses “will cancel trips rather than risk having laptops checked due to risk to confidential information”.

He proposes the adoption of several “alternative measures that he says would “enhance security whilst reducing the impact” on airlines and passengers, and while it is clear authorities may need to implement immediate security measures in response to “credible threat intelligence”, he urges regulators to “weigh the impacts of such measures on the passenger, the economy and the airlines”.

Airport body ACI Europe has also raised concern that the current situation “reveals a lack of meaningful security cooperation” between the EU and the US and “is not conducive to effective security” potentially compromising trust in the aviation security system. Data from ACI Europe shows that 59 airports in the European Common Aviation Area currently have direct services to the US, with a total of 3,684 weekly flights being operated.

The five airports with the largest number of US weekly flights are London Heathrow (761 flights), Paris Charles de Gaulle (353 flights), Frankfurt (291 flights), Amsterdam Schiphol (242 flights) and Dublin (179 flights). Together, these 5 airports account for nearly 50% of the weekly flights to the US. Based on a sample of European airports, the number of passengers carrying PEDs is estimated to be between 60% and 90%.

Given the volumes involved, extending the current US ban to European airports would obviously result in significant disruptions, with implications on various aspects on airport and airline operations. Amongst these would be ad hoc screening checks at the gate of each flight, as well as the implementation of related processes to load PEDs into the hold of aircraft.

ACI Europe says these would require “the deployment of a very large number of additional security staff” who are not necessarily readily available and would need to also be trained. Also, as for anyone working in the restricted area of a European airport, these new staff would need to first obtain security clearance from the competent national authorities – a process that usually takes several weeks.

Affected airports could reconsider their gate allocation system – with the objective of re-grouping US bound flights within ‘common gate areas’, where possible. In addition to the extended boarding processing times involved by the extra screening, this would generate inefficiencies in infrastructure capacity utilisation, with potentially spill-over effects on other flights.

“All in all, if the ban was to go ahead, it would hit the continent’s busiest airports hardest, where a significant portion of US-bound flights would need to be cancelled at short notice. For the flights that could still operate there would be delays, which would compromise onward connections in the US,” says Olivier Jankovec, director general, ACI Europe.

Beyond the operational impact, a ban would have obvious consequences on demand for transatlantic air travel – and ultimately connectivity between Europe and the US. Emirates Airline has already cut back on its schedules to the US, blaming policies introduced by President Trump’s administration for hurting bookings. These include not just the PED restrictions but also relating to the issuance of entry visas and heightened security vetting.

The sudden but short-lived travel ban that President Donald Trump imposed on nationals from seven mainly Muslim countries entering the US appears to have deterred travellers from other countries around the world too, according to analysis by intelligence provider ForwardKeys. The Valencia-based company’s analysis discovered a 6.5% negative variation in bookings compared with the equivalent eight-day period the year before.

Unsurprisingly, the findings show that after Mr Trump’s initial travel ban (imposed on January 27, 2017) net bookings issued from those seven countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen) between January 28, 2017 and February 4, 2017 were down 80% on the same period last year.  But this trend has spread across the world with bookings into the US falling from all parts of the world.

ACI Europe says the EU and US must “carefully consider” whether any additional security measures are actually needed for US bound flights departing from European airports and any such measures should be considered on risk-based basis and “need to be credible, proportionate and effective to address whatever threat they are supposed to address”.