Today, the Department of Homeland Security published a new set of restrictions forcing laptops and other electronics to be checked as cargo rather than carried into the cabin on flights from eight Muslim-majority countries. The restrictions have already drawn criticism on political grounds, but ambiguities in the order could also cause more practical problems.
Smartphones are explicitly exempted from the restrictions, while any device “larger than a smartphone” is included. That explicitly includes tablets, as well as e-readers, cameras, and handheld gaming units. But it’s often difficult to draw a clear line between phones and tablets, and given both political and practical ambiguities in how the new restrictions are to be enforced, it’s proven remarkably difficult to tell where a given device will land in that spectrum.
“Smartphone... size is well understood by most passengers who fly internationally.”
Recent trends in electronics have only made the problem worse. Flagship phones like the iPhone 6S Plus and Samsung Galaxy S7 have swelled to 5.5 inches, while 7 inches has long been a standard size for small tablets. But there are a number of 7-inch devices with the power to make phone calls, and many of them — like the Huawei Honor X2 and Asus FonePad line — are explicitly marketed as phablets. There are also devices caught in the no-man’s-land between those two sizes, like the Galaxy Note 5 or Sony Xperia Z Ultra.
This might seem like nitpicking, but for anyone using one of those devices, the concern is very concrete: will you be able to take your FonePad in a carry-on on a flight from Dubai to New York, or will it be checked at the gate?
In official documents, Homeland Security presents the issue as relatively clear cut, but seems to leave the door open for restrictions on larger phones. As the DHS Q&A paper reads:
Q9: How are you defining, “larger than a smart phone?”
A9: The size and shape of smart phones varies by brand. Smartphones are commonly available around the world and their size is well understood by most passengers who fly internationally. Please check with your airline if you are not sure whether your smartphone is impacted.
When we reached out to DHS for clarification on the phablet issue, a representative pointed us back to the affected airlines. “Passengers should contact their air carrier,” the representative said, “which will let the passengers know what is allowed in the cabin of the plane.”
Airlines, however, seemed less sure. The Verge reached out to four separate airlines affected by the new restrictions — Royal Jordanian, Qatar Airways, Emirati Airlines, and Etihad — but none were able to comment on the phablet issue. We also contacted the Department of Commerce’s Tourism Board for more general guidance; as of press time, the board had not responded.
In general, allowing mobile phones seems to be more of a concession to travelers than a ruling on device security. “TSA seeks to balance risk with impacts to the traveling public,” DHS says in the same Q&A, “and has determined that cell phones and smart phones will be allowed in accessible property at this time.” As a result, even large phones might plausibly be allowed in the flight cabin, provided they were used as a primary device.
But as it stands currently, it’s unclear who would even set the policy, with airlines, Homeland Security, and local airports caught in a bureaucratic tangle. Even simple questions like “What’s a tablet?” may be difficult to answer definitively, leaving phablet owners to risk a trans-Atlantic flight without no way to pass the time.