It's been two days now since "the world changed" again in terms of how we travel by air. There is a fair amount of discussion on blogs both here and in the UK, on how life could really change for gadget freaks, business travelers, and just mainstream folks who have gotten used to traveling with their gadgets like laptops, iPods, GameBoys and other knick knacks in their carry-ons.
(Note this sad story from Gizmodo about a passenger being asked to mail back his Microsoft music player prototype, instead of carrying it on board).
The discussion centers on whether the current draconian "no electronics of any kind" ban that's underway on flights to and from the UK, will be extended to airports in the US either for the short and/or the long-term.
Valleywag reports that US travelers going overseas are not allowed to bring their laptops, cellphones and other electronics on board.
As USA Today's Kevin Maney sums up some recent posts:
"Blogger Paul Kedrosky argues that the ban on laptops and iPods on UK flights might be "a tipping point for business air travel." In fact, it's more than the laptop ban at work here -- the whole mess of not being able to carry on luggage, gels, liquids, cell phones is an absolute mess for business travelers..."
Another concern, voiced by tech journalist Dan Gillmor on Dave Farber's IP listserv: "Laptops coming out of Heathrow are going into luggage you're forbidden to lock in the first place. Then your luggage in the hands of poorly paid airline employees (many of whose wages have been cut by 25-50 percent in the past few years) and government workers (some of whom may also be interested in what's on your hard disks). Phones and other handhelds, not to mention various kinds of valuables no longer allowed in carry-on bags, will be especially prone to pilfering."
Having to potentially check my laptop was precisely why I chose to leave it behind yesterday morning, when I saw the first reports coming out of the UK on the big round-up. Luckily it was a day-trip, so I didn't miss it THAT much.
I'd already given up traveling with my digital camcorder for some months now except for "official vacation" trips. That's because I've found anecdotally that every time (two times now), I took a camcorder along, it was taken aside for special swab testing, adding a little more delay to the travel process.
It's a tough balance.
We know electronics have been used as triggers in terrorist attacks on trains in Madrid, India and other places. It's a logical step to be concerned about them on board aircraft with checked luggage under the passenger's feet.
We also know that having passengers check their electronics is NOT a viable, long-term option because of the liability issues involved for the airlines and the TSA. The TSA already asserts no liability for theft or pilfering, but also asserts it's right to check any checked bags as they see fit, even if it means breaking the locks on checked bags.
Special TSA locks are not necessarily an option since many mainstream travelers won't bother to go through the expense of using them.
Businesses will also likely ban their employees from checking their laptops and cellphones in the long-term because of data theft liability.
An intermediate, but expensive option for businesses might be some sort of "Fedex" or UPS "electronics ship-ahead" service.
The parcel carriers already have programs in place to shunt people's laptops to repair facilities and back. Those programs can conceivably be expanded for mainstream laptop/gadget shipment with the appropriate security/liability and insurance systems built-in.
All this of course adds billions in the "terror tax" that consumers and businesses are already paying for better security, both perceived and real.
By my back-of-the envelope calculations, just the shoe bomber incident by Richard Reid in December 2002, is potentially costing Americans over $9.5 billion a year in lost productivity.
That's just one bad guy's life in jail for his life-time against an economic cost for his enemies measured in the billions.
How do I get to this number?
Remember, the US had over 590 million passengers fly last year (I don't have a number of average number of trips per passenger, so I'm very conservatively using ONE trip per passenger).
For over three and a half years since the shoe bomber incident, basically EVERY ONE of them has had to take off and put on their shoes at airport security points around the country.
Assume two minutes per passenger for this activity.
Take a $12.5 trillion economy in an almost 300 million person country last year, and you get a productivity per person per minute per year of around $8.
Multiply that by two minutes per person by 590 million flying passengers, and you get roughly $9.5 billion a year, or over $33 billion for three and a half years for a "shoe bomber terror tax".
Indefinitely, until the war on terror is done.
You can use different assumptions than mine, but you still get numbers that are potentially in the tens of billions of dollars.
One life for that return. Talk about asymmetrical guerrilla warfare.
By the way, if any one has better numbers on the "terror tax" on US productivity, I'd love to see them. I searched for some economic research on the "shoe bomber" effect, with meager results.
As an aside, these potential economic costs do not include the potentially increased risks to passenger's feet being infected with foot fungi, walking barefoot through the security barriers. As this article from the Milwaukee Sentinel notes:
"...(a) retired director of the Molecular Histology Lab at the National Institutes of Health is concerned that thousands of Americans are being exposed to infectious fungi - such as the ones that cause athlete's foot - as they trod, shoeless, through airport metal detectors..."
The health issues aside, the mind boggles at what the productivity cost of a ban on laptops and cell phones for mainstream air travel.
Not to mention "peace of mind" benefits from carrying on entertainment gadgets like MP3 players, games and DVD players to keep the kids entertained on long flights and the like.
Plus one has to consider that the overall demand profiles of most electronic gadgets could be affected by a ban on carrying them with you when traveling by air. There's possibly an economic cost here that could potentially be significantly in the billions.
I agree with Paul Kedrosky, Seth Godin and others, that while air travel won't come to a grinding halt, both business and mainstream travelers will look at the marginal utility of every trip a little bit more closely against the hassle and increasingly the LOST PRODUCTIVITY FACTOR.
"When you need an additional 90 minutes, can't bring your laptop (or even a book on some routes) and can't have a bottle of water, the calculus for most trips is fundamentally changed."
Add to this no cell phones and PDAs, and you may have a deal-breaker for a lot of business trips at the margin.
And when you absolutely, positively MUST travel, you'll likely bear the extra expense of sending your electronic valuables ahead using Fedex and other parcel carriers.
I hope the Federal Reserve's noting these potentially secular changes to the nation's economic growth drivers.
It's not just about taking off shoes for a couple of minutes anymore.