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Working Around Our Electronics Double Indemnity
March 23, 2017 -- For a moment, let's assume Homeland Security's electronics ban on nonstop flights from the Middle East and North Africa makes sound, rational, logical security sense.
This is what you have accepted: Bad actors may be putting bombs in electronic devices, so please check those potentially bomb-laden laptops, tablets, e-readers and other electronic devices into the cargo hold. You know, the cargo hold where airlines ban lithium batteries because they could burst into flames and explode.
Got it? Forcing us to put electronics in checked baggage means potential bombs are in the cargo holds of our planes and those devices might explode even if there aren't any bombs because the batteries could ignite.
As Barton Keyes, the canny insurance claims investigator in Double Indemnity, once said in another context, "It's not twice as safe. It's ten times twice as dangerous."
Why would Homeland Security want our flights to be ten times twice as dangerous? How the hell would I know? I'm just a business flyer who knows that 1+1=2 no matter what the apparatchiks at Homeland Security say.
Leave us not waste too much time trying to figure out the motives of Homeland Security, either. They could be political, aimed at burnishing President Trump's tough-guy image or augmenting his judicially stalled travel ban. They could be protectionist, conveniently doing the U.S. carriers' bidding and retarding the ability of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways to compete. (The British ban notably does not include airports in the United Arab Emirates or Qatar.) They could even be incredibly misguided and ludicrously ham-fisted attempts at genuine security.
Instead, let's consider workarounds. Since the security chieftains have left us our smartphones, we have some options. Ten workarounds, by my count.
READING IS FUNDAMENTAL
If you rue the loss of your tablet or book reader, then there is a sublimely simple solution: the Kindle app for iPhone or Android. I've been using it for years on my phone, which has a 4.7-inch screen. It's like reading a paperback. Perfectly acceptable substitute. And if you're one of the six remaining Nook users, there's an app for that, too.
CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC
You're kidding, right? You still travel with a separate music player? Get over it. Your phone will do just fine. Load it up. And if your smartphone accepts SD cards, load 'em up, too.
I'm not a fan of watching video on my phones, but we can make it work. Depending on resolution and sound quality, you can fit three or four hours of video on a 32-gigabyte SD card. And since the electronics ban seems aimed at Gulf carriers, you're in luck. The Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Air in-flight entertainment systems not only offer literally thousands of hours of entertainment, they also have embedded USB ports. Plug your phone into the system and use the seatback screen to play your own entertainment.
LIFE GOES BETTER WITH DONGLE
Okay, now it's time to get sophisticated. If you want to turn your smartphone into a mini-laptop, you'll need an OTG Cable. That's a cheap dongle with a male micro-USB plug on one end and a female USB port on the other. You plug the micro-USB into your phone and you suddenly have a USB port. If you get really fancy, you can get a dongle that offers multiple USB ports.
What good are USB ports? If you want to use your smartphone as a laptop, you'll need a keyboard and mouse, right? As long as the keyboard and mouse are unpowered, you can still carry them aboard. I checked with Homeland Security and it confirmed that unpowered computer gear can be kept in your carry-on bag. Head to Walmart or Best Buy or Amazon.com and get some cheap keyboards and mice. Just make sure they are NOT battery powered. (And, of course, that the keyboard fits in your carry-on bag.)
Okay, you're saying, what good is having an external keyboard? My phone can't do computing. Of course it can. You just haven't thought of using it that way. Microsoft Office, which most of us use, has an app for Android phones and an iPhone app, too. I have no way of knowing what other software you use, of course, so start googling. You'll be surprised how many basic computer programs now have mobile apps. You'll be working on a small screen, but it'll work in a pinch.
THE BURNER STRATEGY
We might as well talk about the elephant in the room. Even if it was technologically safe to put your expensive electronics in your checked bags, why would you? The chance of theft is insanely high. So is the opportunity for damage. That means what? Going roundtrip without your gear because you'd be forced to check it on the return trip? Unacceptable.
Just as many travelers have cheap "burner" phones for overseas trips, consider buying inexpensive "burner" laptops and tablets.
Amazon sells its entry-level Fire tablet for just $50. I purchased one a few years ago and I can tell you it does an acceptable job. I'd have no problem throwing a cheap Fire tablet in my checked bag and not worrying if it was pilfered or broken on the way home.
For a laptop, why not a Chromebook? They are cheap--as little as $165, in fact--and quite useful. They run on cloud-based Google apps that store data to Google Drive, a free cloud-based storage system. The apps for word processing, spreadsheets and other tasks are compatible with most other systems, too. If you toss your Chromebook in your checked bag and it gets lost, broken or stolen, you've lost very little.
TWO FINAL THOUGHTS
You can ship electronics home using FedEx or DHL, of course. The price is high, however, and the paperwork tends to be daunting. See here for FedEx's Sturm-und-Drang PDF about shipping items with batteries.
Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. electronics ban limits you to carrying on only one smartphone. So buy a cheap burner phone or two, if only to listen to music, watch entertainment or use as a faux tablet or computer. You don't even need to activate the phone with a mobile carrier; just use it with WiFi. A company called Blu makes good, cheap and unlocked Android devices. And a firm selling under the RCA brand also makes surprisingly decent and inexpensive Android models. I'd get one with a large screen, lots of memory and a capacious SD card slot.
This column is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.