Back from yet another business trip to the Middle East. I booked this while the laptop ban was still in force, so I added a stop in Abu Dhabi (and onward to London) which allowed me to avoid checking my laptop and tablet. Now these bans are mostly being phased out (link to BBC report), so long as these international airports follow the necessary US Security mandates. Th.is includes some additional electronics screening which I will discuss
My route home was somewhat painful, and I admittedly have some booking regret. In the end, I kept my electronics, and I got full AA mileage credit. I flew from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi to London to Chicago. Flights on Etihad, British Airways and American in economy the whole way, and all on 787s. I was able to get an exit row on British Airways and Main Cabin Extra on American.
Electronics Screening at the Gate in Abu Dhabi
Before boarding in Abu Dhabi, all large electronics are ‘wiped’ for explosive residue. I also had to turn on my laptop and iPad. This particular rule seems to be strict, since the person in front of me had a dead battery, so he had to go through some more questioning. I presume he made the flight, but he was still at the gate counter when I boarded. Bags are also screened, but this didn’t seem to be very deliberate, mostly a quick pass, and wipe with the detector. Keep in mind, this flight was from the UAE to the UK, which was not originally subject to the laptop ban, but I sense that this is the additional electronics screening required by directive from the US.
My Unintentional Test of Screening Procedures
On this trip, I was carrying a small metal block with magnets used for part of the laboratory test I was demonstrating on my trip. Normally this would be sent in advance, but plans changed last minute. It is a piece of aluminum approximately the size of 2 decks of cards next to each other. I expect this would look strange in on an X-ray. And I assumed this would be pulled out at each screening. This metal block received no second look when leaving the US. Nor when departing Riyadh, or during transfer security in Abu Dhabi. On the outbound through Heathrow, the magnet was taken out for a second look. After this, on my return trip, I removed it from my bag, and no additional screening was required.
Electronics Screening at the Gate in London Heathrow
At this point, I presumed all was normal. I even had TSA PreCheck on my AA boarding pass. Not that I expected it to mean anything at Heathrow. No SSSS on my boarding pass as I’ve had when connecting in Europe from the Middle East previously. I got to the gate later than intended after visiting the Cathay Pacific Lounge. Once there, someone marked an “E” on my boarding pass. After a few minutes, I was asked to put my bags on the table. The person screening me got distracted, and had me remove my shoes and started a pat down. Eventually his colleague told him that I was “electronics”. I powered on my devices and they were swiped for explosives residue. Annoying to have to go through this procedure again, and more so that the security folks didn’t seem to know what was going on.
While the additional screening is annoying, especially the sloppy way it happened at the gate at Heathrow. I have to admit I have somewhat more confidence that this is effective than the typical performance of the TSA. Maybe some of the obvious loopholes in the past laptop ban have been closed. Before, as an example, flights from the UAE to the US were subject to the ban, but not UAE to the UK, or UAE to the US connecting most anywhere. Then again, if I was already screened at Abu Dhabi, why was I also subject to more electronics screening at Heathrow?
Thankfully the laptop ban has mostly been phased out. Better than the ongoing liquid restrictions which are still in place a decade plus and counting. As of today, laptops mostly are allowed, but it seems like it will mean more screening. Be prepared.