When we first heard about the electronics ban the week of March 21, 2017, we were already confirmed to fly Turkish Airlines. Although there would be no problem flying to our destination via Istanbul, coming home in mid-April was shaping up to be a bit more complicated. As travel journalists, we typically carry a number of electronics that were not now going to be allowed in our carryons – computers, tablets, cameras, video equipment, and other electronic camera gear.
Of course, this was a perfect opportunity to test the process and learn first-hand how this electronics ban would be affecting travelers. As we fretted about how to deal with this, Turkish Airlines quickly announced a program that would allow travelers to gate-check their valuable electronics rather than put them in luggage at check-in. That, alone, made us feel far more comfortable. But how would it work?
Before we relate our experience with the ban as it was announced on March 21, 2017, here is a little background if you have not heard or perhaps are not clear about the breadth and impact of the electronics ban:
Electronics ban affects these airports
The U.S. and U.K. ban on laptops and other large devices (tablets, cameras, video cameras, etc.) onboard flights originating in select Middle East and North Africa airports will likely continue for months and perhaps indefinitely.
While the Department of Homeland Security continues to assert that this ban on various electronics is airport-specific, not targeting either countries or airlines, the airlines affected are Middle Eastern- or African-based that fly directly to the United States from 10 airports located in eight countries. Those airports are: Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH), Ataturk International Airport (IST), Cairo International Airport (CAI), Dubai International Airport (DXB), Hamad International Airport (DOH), King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED), King Khalid International Airport (RUH), Kuwait International Airport (KWI), Mohammed V Airport (CMN), and Queen Alia International Airport (AMM)
No United States-based carriers are currently affected by the electronic ban. The nine foreign airlines affected are: EgyptAir, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Kuwait Airways, Qatar Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Saudia, and Turkish Airlines. The United Kingdom followed suit immediately with its own similar ban, which also prohibits electronics from being brought onto the plane from the same area airports and as a result affects British Airlines too.
Emirates, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines have each proactively taken the step of allowing customers to gate-check electronics for added security rather than simply stowing them in luggage prior to departure, which also allows business travelers to continue to work at least a bit longer. Read more about the experience of flying Qatar Airlines in this story from “The Points Guy.” Granted, none of this helps business travelers who need to work on a flight. At the time of this writing, Emirates was providing tablets to business and first-class passengers for up to two hours to help its upper-class passengers, and Etihad and Qatar Airways were also offering to loan laptops and/or tablets to business class passengers who can then use a USB to upload any work they will need to access during a flight. In this case, extra security steps would be needed to assure any of your data, including personal information, does not remain on the computer.
What we experienced in Istanbul at Ataturk International Airport
My wife, Therese (and HI Travel Tales co-founder), and I began our flight home on Turkish Airlines in Berlin, where we were reminded at the check-in counter about the ban on electronics. We were told that we would be able to check all electronics at the gate in Istanbul if we chose not to put them in our luggage.
Go to Gate: In Istanbul, the departure boards began to announce, “Go to gate” at least an hour before boarding – likely because of the extra time demanded with all of this – and we arrived at the gate 45 minutes before pre-announced boarding time. We were greeted first by airline officials who checked our passport and boarding pass (writing something on the boarding pass) before being waved on to the security check, where our passports and boarding pass were checked yet again. We have no quibbles with what seems sometimes like excess security!
Then, it was on to the full security check (where our passports and boarding passes were checked again) where our carryon bags were carefully unloaded and each item scrutinized (Therese’s twice!). We had prepared for checking-in our electronics, so our two computers, an older iPad we chose to bring (our newer iPads stayed home this time), as well as Therese’s camera body and my video gear, were all in an extra carryon we planned to give Turkish Airline employees.
Extra gate screening: Screeners were constantly asking managers about items they were unsure about in regards to the ban, with Therese’s camera lenses and my mobile phone’s extra battery pack being triple-checked, but allowed. We saw one screener questioning a GPS device that was indeed not larger than a cellphone, with a flurry of chatter among screener, manager and passenger. In the end, it too was allowed. However, a man next to us was told his noise-cancelling headphones had to be checked. Yup, larger than a cell phone.
From the security tables, we were then escorted with our bag of electronics items to a check-in table. There, each item was carefully logged, and we confirmed with a signature that all items we were giving Turkish Airlines had no damage. At this point, I was told if we wanted to leave our electronics in the padded carryon we had brought just for this purpose, that bag would come out with the other luggage on the bag carousel in San Francisco. Not thrilled with the idea of our electronics being tossed about with other heavier luggage at our destination (would have been a perfect time for a hard shockproof case that could be locked), we elected to remove each item and handed them over separately to Turkish Airlines (we had also put our laptop computers in padded sleeves, and although each item was being stored in bubble wrap, we were of the “better-safe-than-sorry” school with the extra padding sleeves we provided).
Packing, labeling and gate check: At this station, each item was placed into a bubble-wrap sleeve, sealed shut, and labeled with a coded tag. We had put Therese’s camera body and a few small camera electronic devices I have for video use in a small shockproof Pelican case that the airline employees also placed as-is in a bubble-wrap sleeve. An airline manager helping with the process told Therese that they had been using about five or six extra hardside suitcases per flight for this process, and we noted an additional 12 or more employees too. Quite a bit of extra effort the airline had to muster with nearly no warning. Everyone we dealt with was supremely polite and helpful — amazing considering all the stress and a bit of confusion.
After signing to confirm I had handed over the items, I was given luggage tags that I was told we would use to retrieve our electronics from a separate kiosk at baggage claim in San Francisco. And off we went to boarding, with only our mobile phones to keep us company on a very long flight….
Electronics ban ill defined and a bit vague
While we were waiting in the boarding area, we observed the ban was, in the end, confusing and ill defined, leaving Turkish Airline employees to try to decide on the fly what should in fact accompany us into the cabin or would need to be checked. Some decisions seemed odd (headphones?), but the rule from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is vague, listed standard items like laptops and tablets, but then added that the prohibition “may not be limited” to these. Oh, that’s helpful.
Travelers should expect to have every possible item questioned since affected airlines face big fines if a prohibited item is found on board (although we are not sure how they will find it unless they plant people with such items). We expect most airlines will prefer to be overly thorough.
What to expect when you arrive in the United States
As Global Entry members, we whisked right through customs and arrived at baggage claim where we came upon a folding table with several rolling carts next to the baggage carousel along with two smiling Turkish Airline employees. This was the “Electronic Devices Delivery Point” – a rather last-minute set-up but again the airlines had little warning for all of this. It seemed a little ragtag and, as it turned out, some details had not being fully thought through or implemented to best expedite retrieval.
Bags began coming out on the carousel after about 20 minutes, but at the electronics pickup point, only a line was beginning to form with no electronics in sight. Another 10 minutes or so later, Therese went to claim a place in line, and Michael joined her with luggage about 10 minutes after that. Our first mistake was not positioning one of us at the front of the line where we had been when we arrived!
After about 30 minutes, the hardside electronics suitcases were rolled out from a door by an airline employee and immediately the Turkish Airline staff started unpacking all of the electronics and placing them on the carts. Any order or organization as to whose items were in which suitcase was quickly lost in the scramble. That meant the two employees had to search through every last bubble-wrap bag and try to match claim tags for every person. As you can imagine, the minutes began to tick by slowly – and the line had grown very long. Adding to the confusion and stress were passengers who had connections walking past the line to the table to try to fetch their items – and other passengers interrupting the employees for unrelated questions.
One hour after we arrived in the line and about 90 minutes after arriving in the baggage area, we managed to retrieve our computers and camera gear (all in perfect condition, mind you). There was still a very long line behind us. Airline employees had been mostly ignoring passengers trying to point out their items, but when it was our turn the now-flustered employees pawing through envelopes listened, and our retrieval moved quickly.
Improvements of electronics ban procedure a given
We have to believe that as this electronics ban continues and Turkish Airlines (and others) works through the hiccups and kinks, the rough spots will smooth out. All in all, Turkish Airlines did and is doing all it can to ensure its passengers are inconvenienced as little as possible by the ban. And we appreciate that greatly. We assume the other airlines affected are doing the same since business passengers are their bread and butter.
Prior to our flight, we questioned whether we could fly one of these airlines again, but are now convinced of the safety of our electronics in this process, at least with Turkish. Will we fly Turkish Airlines again soon? Quite likely, as it is a terrific airline with well-trained, caring, polite and accommodating staff. Still, not being able to work on board during the flight home was frustrating for us, but that is not Turkish’s fault. We do expect and hope that, like Emirates, Etihad and Qatar, Turkish will begin providing loaner computers or tablets, at least to business class customers. That will help greatly and perhaps make the upgrade to business a given.