Explanation for the Electronics Ban: Fake iPad Carrying Explosives

The U.S. has banned inflight electronics larger than a cell phone on non-stop flights on 9 airlines from 10 airports in 8 countries.

You might think that the goal is for terrorists to bore themselves to death (there’s really not that much interesting content on Etihad’s E-Box system) but defenders of the security state are leaking that while there’s not “a single specific incident but a combination of factors” there’s a fear that terrorists have developed a bomb “hidden in a fake iPad that appeared as good as the real thing.”

The idea then is a theoretical iPad that both has explosives in it and still functions as an iPad. So requiring passengers to turn on their electronics at the security checkpoint wouldn’t reveal that the device is a bomb.

Since we know that airport security has missed over 90% of the dangerous items going through the checkpoint for more than a decade and it’s easier to identify that there is an iPad rather than a dangerous iPad this is a necessary step.

Otherwise the only thing standing between us and oblivion is every time ISIS submits their trigger app to the app store, Apple rejects it.

And yet if this is a real — rather than scifi movie plot — threat, the response is silly.

  • The UK implemented an electronics ban but didn’t see the need to include flights from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Doha.

  • Five Eyes countries Australia, New Zealand, and Canada — who share intelligence with the US and UK via the multilateral UKUSA Agreement for joint cooperation in signals intelligence — looked at the intelligence and didn’t impose the ban at all.

  • The electronics ban was intended to fight an ostensibly existential threat yet wasn’t required to be implemented right away, and was developed over weeks including extensive legislative briefings.

  • Already we’ve seen the ban applied to electric toothbrushes and noise cancelling headsets.

  • Abu Dhabi — whose security is tight enough that the US allows flights originating there to land in America as though they’re domestic — is on the list of airports where electronics aren’t permitted. But Paris and Brussels which have been the scene of extremist airport attacks are not.

  • Terrorists can connect and the ban is extremely limited to a handful of airports. The US won’t allow electronics from Dubai to New York JFK, but a would-be terrorist could hop Azerbaijan Airlines from Dubai to Baku, Azerbaijan to New York JFK and bring their iPad bomb onboard no problem.

Security at the Dubai airport is extensive, and they don’t feel the need to ban electronics on other flights. The US puts every passenger through immigration controls in Abu Dhabi. They stop people from boarding planes, rather than stopping them at the border. This isn’t just the usual passenger lists they approve for every flight to the U.S. And baggage is scanned, passengers go through a second – extensive – security check above and beyond what’s normal for the airport.

If you grant the most extreme version of the threat then the challenge is admittedly hard though the response makes other airports more attractive, other means of attack (such as conspiring airport employees) more attractive, and other targets more attractive.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It doesn’t matter where you store the theoretical Ipad bomb. When it goes off the plane will crash and everyone will die anyway. So what’s the difference?

  2. How does putting the explosive iPad in the cargo hold help? How does the scanning of baggage versus carryons improve explosives detection?

    I’m sure there are no reasonable answers to the above two questions, which is why this electronics ban is STUPID!

  3. @Chris I’m not sure a bomb the size of an iPad would bring a plane down if its in the middle of a cargo hold. Seems like it would be more effective to break through an armored cockpit door (that’s not to say I agree with the ban)

  4. I recently wrote about his as someone who knows a thing or two about explosives. The iPad could probably not contain more than a pound of explosive otherwise the weight would give it away when examined. That amount of explosive can only bring down a plane if it was placed against a structural member, not randomly distributed in the hold. Look at the Somalian airline bombing for an example of what happens when a small explosive is placed randomly.

  5. Now that Samsung wants to bring the Note 7 back, maybe it can catch fire in baggage claim, where you can’t do anything about it.

  6. Gary, how do you know the other countries had access to the same intelligence? You acknowledged the UKUSA agreement that you cite applies to signals intelligence, but not necessarily other disciplines.

  7. Also you might point out that every known fatality from airplane bomb (e.g. Lockerbie) has resulted from a bomb IN THE CARGO HOLD which of course is where all electronics will go.

    The idea that overseas baggage screening is better than passenger screening is laughable. Anyone who has traveled overseas knows that many airports have more thorough xray of carryon luggage than USA, including separate xray of laptops and electronics (which does not happen for precheck customers in USA). Further many passengers are wanded after xray machines and further passengers carryon luggage is often hand searched at the gate. This happens everywhere from Lagos to Hong Kong (where I experienced it last weekend).

    So in sum, why don’t you call out the real reason for this exercise, which is to punish the airlines that are subsidized by Middle Eastern governments, and to deter travel from those countries. This is basically just an open invitation to baggage thieves on these flights.

  8. Boraxo, the recent Somali airplane bomb was in the passenger cabin. Fortunately the resulting hole only sucked out the bomber, but still that counts as a fatality and shows the potential effectiveness of an well-placed bomb in the cabin.

  9. There’s no reason to believe this action is anything other than a ruse.

    The only question is whether it’s a ruse designed to penalize specific airlines as a quid pro quo to AA/DL/UA or another act of security kabuki, in the vein of shoe removal and 3oz liquids?

  10. If it is such a danger should it not be expanded to all flights originating in USA, after all we have so many immigrants.

    What would airlines do without business flyers, let’s stop flying and go to webex and Skype .

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