Mooted Airline Laptop Ban Has Big Implications

Disruption Looming for Business Travellers

This week, the Guardian revealed that the Trump administration is considering barring passengers flying to the US from UK airports from taking laptops into the cabin. This would effectively extend a restriction on laptops implemented six weeks ago that affects nine airlines and selected airports in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. In our view, it’s increasingly likely the US government’s ban will proceed. Furthermore, it could also extend beyond laptops to tablets and also phones that exceed a certain size, including the iPhone 7 Plus and the Galaxy S8 Plus. Such a ban would require passengers to leave their personal and company laptops, tablets and large smartphones at home or to place them in hold luggage.

Once implemented, it’s doubtful that authorities would be minded to revoke the decision. Parallels can be drawn with the ban on liquids, which was introduced as a temporary measure in August 2006 and is still in place after more than a decade.

For all airline passengers, but most specifically business travellers, the disruption would be significant, bringing cumbersome changes that would have major implications for the travel and technology industries.

Smartphone-Only Travel

A ban would certainly increase the likelihood of smartphone-only travel. Passengers would need to ensure their phone complies with any size limits. For example, a restriction on devices more than six inches high would banish the Plus versions of the iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S8 into the baggage hold. If you’re considering travelling with just a smartphone, a good option is to invest in a small Bluetooth keyboard such as the Zagg pocket keyboard that a couple of members of the CCS Insight team use. Increasingly powerful smartphones now offer full productivity suites such as Microsoft Office, so although this isn’t an ideal solution, business travellers can continue working on a smaller device.

Over time, the prospect of travelling without a laptop should also become easier for business users as technologies such as Samsung’s DeX and Microsoft’s Continuum become more appealing. These technologies allow a smartphone to be connected to a screen, keyboard and mouse in a PC-like manner. They could be extended to allow passengers to connect to the screen in an airline seat. We also expect some airlines may start to adopt newer Bluetooth technology standards and to enable passengers to connect their smartphones to in-flight systems.

Provided In-Flight Devices

Another interesting angle is how airlines would respond — particularly for their most valuable passengers in business class and first class. Many of these travellers expect to be productive during all aspects of their journey and their ability to work could influence their choice of airline. Emirates is offering complimentary usage of Microsoft Surface devices to their most valuable passengers. Customers can bring a USB stick with their files and work on them during a flight. On-board Wi-Fi is also an emerging trend, with T-Mobile offering its US customers free in-flight Wi-Fi, albeit only on smartphones. Pairing these two approaches would allow users to access a Web-based e-mail interface. Devices provided by airlines would be wiped of all data after each flight and would not store any data locally. We expect more airlines to adopt such a strategy in the near future.

There’s clearly an opportunity for PC makers to work with airlines to use this scheme as a way of boosting marketing for their latest machines. It’s a great chance for companies like Microsoft, HP, Dell or Lenovo to give high-value customers the chance to test drive their latest products while stuck on a long plane journey.

However, the logistics of managing a laptop fleet, securing the devices after each use, charging them, providing power and more cannot be underestimated and will be a huge near-term headache for airlines that chose to implement this. Undoubtedly, airlines will boost their investments in device management technologies to support these moves.

For travellers who don’t wish to use rented devices, in-flight entertainment systems will need to evolve too, offering Internet connectivity and browser-based e-mail. We believe Android will become the system of choice for these environments, further opening up opportunities for Android-based phone manufacturers and solutions like Samsung’s DeX.

Checked Luggage

The carefree approach baggage handlers often take to checked luggage will fill with fear business travellers who may have to stow their gadgets in the hold. Specialist products like the Peli case may also become popular with travellers.

Industry Implications

These considerations only scratch the surface in terms of the implications of a possible ban on laptops, tablets and large smartphones, but if it does come to fruition, it’s going to have wide-ranging effects for business travel indefinitely. It also presents some interesting opportunities for the mobile technology and airline industries. With the average business user carrying 4.5 connected devices today, mobile-only working has largely fallen short for businesses. This may be set to change.

For the airline industry, a wider move to ban portable devices could dampen business demand for short domestic flights. On-board Wi-Fi is becoming increasingly prevalent on trains, for example, which could emerge as a more attractive mode of transport for some people.