Airline laptop bans: how policy change can spark innovation

Airline laptop bans: how policy change can spark innovation

Since the political events of 2016 in the USA and UK, one of the common topics of conversation at international events or conferences is: how will the impending changes impact the economy and business. Whenever I get asked about the impact of Brexit, a common response is that businesses and entrepreneurs will get on with their daily business whatever is thrown at them, because they have to both survive and grow in order to sustain themselves and the wider economy.

Of course there is going to be some negative impact from policy changes, but that just means businesses need to innovate to meet and overcome those challenges.

A good example is the recent laptop ban on flights to and from the USA and certain countries in the Middle East, and possibly also the UK. This could indeed transform the business travel industry with the use of innovative technology, from the growth of wi-fi on aircraft to new technology services, to advances in virtual reality / augmented reality to replace some business travel. It could also spur new business opportunities from new service offerings and providers.

Two insightful pieces from mobile industry analysts Ben Wood, Nicholas McQuire and Marina Koytcheva of CCS Insight articulate these very well, and we present them here:

Part 1: Disruption looming for business travellers – Ben Wood and Nicholas McQuire

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Part 2: A ban on large devices in cabins may be a boon for some firms – Marina Koytcheva

In the above Daily Insight, my colleagues Nick McQuire and Ben Wood shared their thoughts on a potential ban on laptops and other large-screened devices in the cabins of aircraft flying to the US from Europe. They mentioned a few potential solutions, and the piece prompted me to think further about how technology could solve some of the problems posed to business travellers by such a ban.

Using technology to overcome hurdles to business travel or simply to cut cost is not a new thing. In the wake of restrictions imposed since the 9/11 attacks and in response to natural disasters like tsunami and volcanic eruptions, companies have looked for ways to eradicate the need for employees to get on a plane.

In this case, although travel is not obstructed, travellers are required to check in their laptops, tablets and large phones. A company might simply choose to ban mid- and low-level personnel from travelling on business, because these employees wouldn’t qualify for special treatment by airlines, such as the free use of on-board devices offered by some Middle Eastern airlines to premium flyers. In some cases, the risk of losing a laptop with sensitive information in checked luggage could simply be too high for some companies and they may decide to ban travel with laptops.

Although any ban would be a huge inconvenience to many, it presents a golden opportunity for technology companies to offer new waves of almost-in-the-same place solutions and web-based collaboration tools. Adoption of technology like HP’s Halo Telepresence videoconferencing has proven to cut business travel: many people would prefer a 3:00am videoconference than to fly from London to Beijing for a single meeting. But in addition to videoconferencing, which is not new, there are some possibilities for modern solutions, including augmented and mixed reality.

For example, Microsoft’s HoloLens in combination with Skype could be able to provide a reasonable alternative to face-to-face meetings. The business case is quite clear: a global company could equip meeting rooms with a few HoloLens devices in each of its main offices around the world, and expect to see a return on its investment within a short time thanks to savings from reduced business travel. Furthermore, such solutions could bring in the benefit of higher job satisfaction for employees who are typically required to travel and as a result of new technology can spend less time away from their homes.

Given the trend toward as-a-service business models, hardware and associated telepresence services could be bundled as a service and offered to companies with more moderate conferencing needs.

Restrictions on devices when travelling could also provide a boost to remote working solutions in which absolutely all information resides in the cloud, including applications and data. If users can get access to a PC they can log in and work as though they were in their base office, whether in a remote office or travelling elsewhere.

For travellers without access to a remote office, I can envisage a scenario in which Dell, HP or Lenovo offer laptops-as-a-service in hundreds of business locations. Travellers arrive, pick up a laptop from the airport, just like a rental car, use it for their trip with secure cloud-based access to company information and applications, and drop it off on departure.

Of course, security (of the cyber kind) would be a challenge in this scenario. But the opportunities presented by the scale of potential demand for laptops-as-a-service may add impetus to efforts to offer such a service. The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority reported that in the 12 months to the end of March 2016, more than 22 million passengers flew from the UK to North America. Not all were business travellers, but there’s still a substantial audience for innovative solutions to a device ban, especially if, as we predict, any ban extends into a global restriction.

These insights are republished courtesy of CCS Insight. To read their blog and other research, click here.

[Images: Emirates and Microsoft HoloLens]

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