Unintended consequences of the coming laptop & tablet ban

The Law of Unintended Consequence impacts all our decisions and actions in ways we didn’t expect, no matter how well-meaning or poorly-contrived the original rationale.  If laptops and tablets and e-book readers disappear from airplane cabins (on flights from Europe and the Middle East to begin with), we may find that it’s a mixed blessing.

The chest-beating, hair-pulling, primal-scream consternation of business flyers reacting to the pending loss of laptops and tablets on board flights from Europe can be heard around the globe.  Like many business people, I have spent a good deal of time recently thinking about the dire implications of not having my laptop with me on the road.  Bottom line:  It’s a nonstarter.  I require it.  My laptop is a precious extension of my brain—and ofttimes more useful. Its value to business pursuits is irreplaceable.

Heck, we should complain; never has it been more “mete and right so to do” as I recall the 1928 Episcopal prayer book words in the Liturgy. Not having an electronic device at hand in flight can be detrimental to productivity; not having a laptop at all on a business trip is nearly fatal to achieving the trip’s mission in the first place. Much ink is currently being spilled on this subject.

But what about the more trivial pursuits that a tablet or laptop sitting on an airplane tray table provides access to?  Will we miss those recreations quite as much as studying complex spreadsheets, or sweating over PowerPoint bullets, or updating Outlook Calendar?

For instance, more than once on an airplane I have innocently glanced over at an open laptop next to me in the compressed spaces of coach and seen video porn running on the screen.  This occurred with the viewer, my seatmate, uncomfortably close to begin with in those inhumanly cramped spaces, so rapt with attention to the sweaty contortions of the naked participants onscreen, that he (and it’s always a guy watching) was oblivious to being in a most public place where anybody could watch along with him.

For some reason it’s always the fellow in the center seat watching pornography on a plane.  By choice, I am always in an aisle seat, so I can turn away.  But on one such flight I noticed the woman in the window seat observed what was playing and turned bright red and remained frowning and flushed throughout the flight.  She turned to the window and never looked back until we landed.

Who can blame her?  I am no prude, but seeing such things in a confined space where escape is impossible always makes me feel slightly unclean, especially since contact with my fellow passenger’s body is unavoidable in such close quarters.  I won’t miss such chance encounters with boors when laptops are banned on board. No, not at all.

A happier impact of eliminating laptops will be to see tray tables shorn of the familiar black clamshell devices, making it far easier for customers in center and window seats to get out to reach the lavatories.

Speaking of trips to the rear lavs in economy, returning to one’s seat up the aisle is the best way to comprehend the ubiquity of electronic devices on board flights: Nearly everybody has one going.  Small as they are, tablets and laptops in aggregate must account for a fair portion of overhead and underseat space on flights.  Perhaps when we are forced to travel that much lighter, so will the cabin spaces be less cluttered, leaving sufficient room for everyone’s belongings at our feet or in the compartments above our heads. (Okay, maybe I’m dreaming.)

On the other hand, if Marx was right when he wrote in the 19th century that religion was “the opiate of the people,” then surely Netflix and Amazon Prime movies and TV shows are the opiate of the 21st century flying public, keeping them nicely sedated during today’s horribly claustrophobic and often-delayed flights.  Yes, you can stream movies and TV shows on your smartphone, but it’s tedious and suboptimal, isn’t it?  Only a video screened on a tablet or laptop makes the flights, well, fly by.  So what will stress levels be like when no passenger has a suitable device to placate the troubled soul by watching a movie?  I can almost feel the in-flight tension rising just contemplating the ban.

The prospect of a passenger blowing a fuse because not properly medicated through immersion in some meaningless, escapist motion picture tripe (exactly the type I like) does worry me.  Remember when airlines routinely gave out playing cards to anyone who asked? And plenty of current magazines were stocked on board?  Even in those less stressful times when flights were not always completely full and seat spacing followed humane measures of legroom, airlines knew that a passenger’s mind occupied playing cards or reading a magazine was less likely to cause trouble. Gin rummy, anyone?

Speaking of reading, will passengers now go back to bringing aboard books made of paper when e-book readers are given the boot along with tablets and laptops?  Personally, I never kicked that habit, especially since Amazon sells used books for a penny plus $3.99 for shipping.  I take books on every flight, read them, and then give them away.  They don’t require batteries and never malfunction unless my bookmark falls out.  After e-devices vanish from airplane cabins, I hope to see more folks heads-down, buried in a good novel or perhaps a Civil War history (or, if you are from the South, a tome about the so-called “War of Northern Aggression”).

Another advantage of paper over e-devices is that books don’t take up much room in overhead compartments or in luggage. Call me a Pollyanna, but I am always looking for ways to optimize airplane cabin overhead space.

Of course, some folks just enjoy cruising the Internet or catching up on email by connecting their electronic device to in-flight wifi. The service isn’t cheap. I’ve often wondered whether on-the-go wifi was a decent revenue stream for the airlines.  Whether it’s a money-spinner or not, I don’t foresee as many passengers opting for that purchase to connect their smartphone as for their laptop or tablet. Will the ban cause airlines to discontinue in-flight wifi due to shriveling fees?  Will anyone care?

We will soon see how the e-device cabin prohibition falls out to us business travelers.  I didn’t consider the ancillary consequences until the ban loomed close at hand.  All this thinking has given me a headache.  Whatever happens, though, I am sure that frequent flyers will adapt to the changes, intended and unintended, as we always have.

Heck, let’s just move on.  Your next drink in the Club is on me.

10 thoughts on “Unintended consequences of the coming laptop & tablet ban

  1. I do appreciate your articles and the thoughts that you put forth. Usually, I agree with you. This time, not so much. It looks like what you are saying to the regulators is to go ahead and ban electronics in the cabin, and we’ll get used to it. I do not agree with this at all.

    There are a few things that have to happen for me to become accepting of this. First of all, I don’t have to turn my laptop on during a flight. And if someone is watching porn on a laptop while sitting in a plane, the flight crew should immediately deal with it. There is a long list of things that flight crews don’t deal with, and that’s one of them. They need to up their game. The same flight crews that let the plane land with a guy who is resting his head on the lowered tray table and sleeping as they “walked by and didn’t notice” are the same ones who don’t notice porn and a whole bunch of other things. I see this happen all the time. They walk by “checking things” but don’t notice when someone is doing something they are “supposed to check and correct”.

    However, the biggest concern that I have is the almost complete lack of care and security for checked bags. They throw them like footballs. They open them up with a little note inside and due to the fact that it is often bags that go through other airports no problem, I have a sneaking suspicion that they open them up to see if there is anything in there to steal. That is why they open bags in many countries, and in some third world countries, the guys checking bags while you have them even mark the bags a certain way so their buddies in baggage know there is something to steal inside.

    Since checked bags go from me, to the airline, to the TSA, then back to the airline, it has been my experience that the airline therefore blames 100% of the issues on the TSA and takes ownership of nothing. Between my wife and I, we carry several thousand dollars comprising of two laptops and two iPads, and that’s not including the phones. Having the risk of theft of these items on each and every trip increase significantly is not something I am happy about.

    With the tagging and tracking systems in place, they need to make sure that there is tracking and video of all checked bags at every step of the way. That there is no rough handling. That there is no theft. At that point, I would consider being “okay” with checked electronics.

    So no, I am not onboard with you telling the regulators to go ahead and ban these electronics in the cabin. They have a LOT of things to fix first.

    I can tell you that if someone does steal my laptop, they have just stolen a brick. It does not have a removable hard disk, it is memory that’s on tablet and it is AES encrypted 256 bit. The thief is not getting in there. All of my information is backed up.

    That said, no one has clearly explained why it is safer to put the electronics in the hold than in the cabin. The people who are the “risk” have already become aware of all this, so if they are making something that is going to explode in the cabin, I have every expectation that they are working to modify it so it will work in a hold.

    Moving the problem isn’t the answer. Inspecting everything that goes on a plane will go a lot further than tossing the problem into a “hold”.

    We have to confront the problem head on (along with those people causing it) and not just try to avoid doing things in order to let them control our lives.

    To address a couple of minor points – the IFR systems on 30% or more of the flights I cake do not work at my seat, hence the iPad. And I’m not going to carry paper books. No room.

  2. Bill,

    Thank you for the comments.

    Any time a writer has to explain the meaning of her or his words, it means he or she wasn’t clear, so I stand guilty. I wasn’t throwing in the towel. We should protest, loudly and long, and lobby to keep our electronics with us in the cabin rather than in checked luggage or left at the office.

    At the same time I think we should ready to flex and to adapt to whatever dicta are laid down on the matter by the regulators. It seems likely that we will need to figure ways to live with the ban, and I think we should accept that it might spread to other routes, even to US domestic flights. It’s a royal pain, but we are survivors; that’s why we are nicknamed “road warriors”. We can and will adapt..

  3. William,
    Thank you for the clarification.

    Actually, this crosses a line. It is the first “security precaution” that takes something of significant value and puts it at extreme risk. There seems to be little or no effort to mitigate the risk.
    And little or no justification for doing it.
    Like so many things, it is a reaction that’s not well thought out.

    Have the Israelis put an electronics cabin ban in place? No. They thoroughly check who and what is going on the plane. Admittedly, that would be a pretty significant change to flying if we all had to do that but the thing is, their methods solve the problem. The in cabin electronics ban does not.

    I am all for sensible solutions, but theatrics where we end up placing our valuables in places that are known for extreme theft, I’m not into it.

    Thank you once again and have a great weekend.


  4. what about those of us who travel with only carry-ons? how do we get our devices to our destination? there are many times when checking a bag is not only expensive, but impractical.

  5. It’s a non-starter for me. If it happens, I guess I won’t be traveling internationally any longer. I’m already close to that point with domestic flights for different reasons.

    Many of these people in management roles within the DHS are absolute idiots. I work with a number of federal agencies and I am almost convinced the Feds require you submit to a frontal lobotomy as a condition of employment. A lot of them spend hours and hours thinking of ways to screw with their fellow employees and the contractors they supervise. It is incredible that something worse than 9/11 hasn’t happened, for these schmucks couldn’t identify a real threat if it poked them between the eyes.

    I don’t have to travel to make a living, though it is part of what I do at present. I am very close to deciding the hassles of travel have made this a negative sum game for me. If the situation doesn’t get better soon, I will find another way to earn my keep.

    1. Thank you for confirming what I thought was true. Although my thoughts might change, I am really thinking to just not fly very much at all anymore. I can adapt to a lot of things, but this to me seems like nonsense. I am also updating and configuring an old, heavy laptop (and encrypting the drive on it). Although it is probably much more susceptible to screen damage on a trip..as that old movie war games said, “the only way to win is not to play”.

  6. Thanks, Will Allen, for another insightful article.
    I believe the day will come when luggage of any type is not allowed on planes. FedEx will be thrilled when everyone has to “ship” their suitcases, laptops, and etc. to their destination. A couple more airport bombings like we had last year and security will begin at the door with nothing but a book in your hand.

    1. Are you saying you won’t be allowed to carry a purse? Medications? Baby supplies? They make some sort of case for laptops, however absurd, but it is difficult to make a case for “everything”. And why would a “book” be allowed and nothing else? At some point, someone should realize that there is a need to just check passengers and bags effectively and stop trying to get around the problem by just making it more and more awkward to fly…

  7. How on earth can taking the pile of paper books I would need for even a long weekend vacation take up less room in overhead or under seat storage than my ipad or kindle? Not to even mention a longer trip or the business implications and the mounds of paper most of us have been freed from carrying with the advent of electronics. Also not to mention the sheer difficulty of carrying that pile of paper and books. I also just can’t fathom how so many of the commenters to various pieces on the subject can claim to be comfortable reading, working, etc on a phone for the duration of a long flight – or even a short one! They are clearly much younger than I … I can live without my laptop on a flight, but the thought of being without my ipad and kindle for my hundred thousand miles +++ a year is giving me a panic attack. I haven’t checked a bag in years and can live without my laptop if it comes to a choice between checking a bag and taking said laptop, but please, please, not my tablet and e-reader!

    1. All flight crews should be required to comply also. I had best not see any pilot/flight attendant tablets or laptops onboard either if they ban them for passengers. No exceptions.

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