Canada: US And UK Impose In-Cabin Ban On Large Electronic Devices In Direct Fights From Turkey, The Middle East And North Africa – Will Canada Follow Suit?

Last Updated: April 3 2017
Article by Devry Smith Frank LLP

On Tuesday, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a new travel directive in response to intelligence indicating growing security threats to US-bound commercial airfare. Regardless of nationality, passengers aboard non-stop flights bound for the United States, from 10 airports in eight Muslim-majority countries, will be restricted from bringing large electronics into the cabin. Laptops, tablets, e-readers and other electronics larger than a normal cellphone or smartphone will now need to be placed with checked luggage.

The restrictions affect one airport in each of Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait, Morocco, and Qatar, and two airports in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They will affect about 50 flights per day. Only flights bound directly for the United States will be subject to the restrictions; the same flights will be unaffected on their return trips. Despite some confusion on the matter, the restrictions appear to apply indefinitely.

The UK has now issued a similar ban, though in regards to all in-bound flights from six Muslim-majority states: Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. According to Transport Minister Marc Garneau, Canada is considering imposing similar restrictions. A decision is expected shortly.

Why impose the ban?

Is this a reasonable response to a substantial, newly identified security threat? A technocratic approach the same policy ends that many consider discriminatory? What best explains this directive?

In short, it's hard to say. Making assumptions about one's motivations is always a messy proposition, especially with this many moving pieces. Insofar as an institution, i.e. a large group of individuals, like the DHS, can even have a 'motivation', the secretive nature of the DHS makes getting a read on them that much more difficult. Add the unpredictability of the Trump administration to the mix, and we can expect a certain amount of head scratching. That said, looking at this directive in context can help us draw some tentative conclusions.

Few issues have demanded the media's and public's attention in recent years like security and terrorism. In the wake of yet another terrorist attack, this time in London – on the anniversary of the last year's attacks on Belgium, no less – none can doubt the issue's salience. Taking a hard line on terrorism was a central pillar of Donald Trump's campaign strategy, and a rallying cry for many of his supporters. Many will also recall that this directive comes amidst the embattled administration's second attempt to impose a travel ban on several Muslim-majority states. That effort is currently stalled, pending the government's appeal. Considered in this context, the ban might be read as just another component of the Trump administration's controversial (and legally questionable) approach to security issues.

Yet this directive does not have the same populist appeal that some might attribute to Trump's previous forays into security issues. The facts that the UK so readily adopted a similar ban, and that Canada is considering the same, suggest that this may be an ad-hoc response to a bona fide security threat, rather than a calculated political maneuver. US officials, for their part, insist that this directive and the prior attempts at a travel ban are unrelated, stating that these restrictions simply reflect specific threats emanating from the named airports.

Intelligence recently obtained by CNN also seems to confirm the apparent logic of the restrictions: terrorist organizations, namely al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have been "perfecting techniques for hiding explosives in batteries and battery compartments of electronic devices" like laptops. The unnamed official being quoted also referred to a "growing pool of intelligence all pointing to threats to aviation."

While this author certainly cannot comment on the intelligence cited, the risk they refer to is not without precedent. As recently as February 2016, an explosive smuggled onto a flight inside of a laptop was detonated by a would-be mass murderer. Thankfully, the bomber was the sole casualty and the plane was landed safely – albeit with a hole blown in the fuselage. Yet it could have turned out much worse. Whether this directive will be effective in preventing these types of attacks in the future, only time will tell.

Questions remain

Even if the restrictions warrant much less controversy than previous policies, some questions do remain. For example, some have questioned the veracity of the supposed security threats: if the risk is urgent, why give airlines four days to implement the restrictions? It could be a matter of simple pragmatism – implementation takes time – but that's still unclear.

And why only electronic devices larger than a cellphone or regular smartphone? Either the available intelligence does not implicate these devices as a threat, or the sheer ubiquity of these devices made the inconvenience of banning them too much to bear. How effective these restrictions will be might depend very much on the answer.

Others have taken issue with the choice of specific airports affected. Some question why Abu Dhabi is on the list, given the presence there of a new "state-of-the-art US customs and immigration pre-clearance facility", much like those US-bound Canadians will be familiar with. Others have noted that the affected airports are major hubs for regional airlines, like Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad Airways, and suggest that frustrating competitors of US airlines may have played a role. It's a rather extraordinary claim, and, as they say, it thus requires extraordinary evidence. But expect the questions to keep coming.

Will Canada follow suit?

As alluded to above, perhaps the most basic question is whether the threat is indeed as substantial as the intelligence community have hinted. While we in the public won't be privy to high level security discussions and intelligence, Canada's decision to impose or not impose a similar ban may speak to the truth of the purported threats. As airline industry consultant Robert Kokonis put it when interviewed by the Globe and Mail, "[i]f we don't see Canada reciprocating, either there was no real hard intelligence ... or if there was hard intelligence, it was only [regarding] US-destined flights."

Without access to intelligence or further comment by government officials, we simply cannot know the nature of the threat to Canadians, if any. Independent of such threats, whether Trudeau's government would entertain the same policies as the US and the UK is also unclear. At this point, we just don't have much to go on – observers north of the border will have to wait and see.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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