Travel, freedom and new regulations

For me, hours spent in the air provide an opportunity to think, write, and read, free from interruption. For that reason, I am among those disturbed by the possibility that governments may be moving towards a wider ban on passengers taking laptops and other larger electronic items, into the cabin.

In March, US and UK authorities introduced new regulations, requiring passengers on flights originating in certain countries in the Middle East and North Africa to check in larger mobile devices, including laptops and tablets. The decision reflected concerns about such everyday items being weaponised.

Since then, and in recent weeks, there have been transatlantic discussions about significantly broadening this ban to include another 71 identified airports around the world. Although the Trump Administration has agreed, after detailed exchanges with European officials, not to introduce new regulations immediately, it has made clear that the issue is still on the table, and that the US is engaged in technical discussions with European partners to try to find a common approach.

Unsurprisingly, the possibility of any such ban being introduced on some of the busiest routes in the world for tourism and business travel, including those across the Atlantic, has led to expressions of concern from airlines, the travel industry and in the security sector.

There is a view that there are already enough impediments to travel. Experts say that security in almost all EU airports is tight, if not tighter, than in the US; any decision to have all larger pieces of electronic equipment placed in cargo holds will magnify the possibility of problems arising if multiple devices containing lithium batteries are co-located; and, according to the European Aviation Safety Agency, could make it difficult for on board crew to respond quickly to any incident.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) such an extension of US regulations would affect more than 390 flights per day, and could cost as much as US$1.2 billion in lost productivity and other costs.

What IATA wants are alternatives to the proposed ban. Speaking at the organisation’s annual meeting in Mexico in early June, Alexandre de Juniac, the organisation’s Director General, said that what is required is more intensive screening at the gate, improved skills training and then, in the medium-term, more advanced and faster explosive detection technology.

The debate on aviation security occurs just as other details of the US Administration’s new approach to vetting those travelling to the US has become clearer.

According to the news agency AFP, which quoted an unnamed State Department official, US consular officers can now demand additional information from visa applicants. This includes access passwords to their social media accounts, as well as a wide range of other family and previous travel information.

Other reports, most notably on CNN, have suggested that preliminary discussions are underway about the possibility that US immigration will be given wider authority to ask foreign visitors to
disclose the websites and social media sites they visit on arrival. They could also be asked to show the contacts on their cell phones. The suggestion is that those who decline could be denied entry.

Along with most other travellers, I have no problem with airline security, with nations developing and sharing intelligence to protect citizen security, or with the right of governments to ensure that those who mean harm to others are denied entry.

However, there is a sense that the US Administration is now unilaterally developing proposals that will make the US a much less attractive place to visit. The changes would result in travel and tourism becoming more burdensome and expensive, and at worst will divide the US from the world. While this may be to the short-term advantage of the Caribbean tourism industry, before long it is quite possible that all such regulations will also apply to travellers from the Caribbean region to the US.

Travel and tourism offer everyone the ability to demonstrate their freedom, to be less constrained, to see and think new thoughts, and to better understand others. If nations, and those who seek to do us harm, reduce our desire to travel, and our freedom to explore or express alternative ideas, we will all have lost.