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Go Without a Laptop? Travelers to London Wring Their Free Hands

Times Staff Writer

Gwendal Auffret sat frustrated at a food court at Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday, hastily typing business contracts on his laptop.

He had no choice but to type the documents there: Airport security wanted all passengers en route to London’s Heathrow Airport to check their computers as baggage.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 12, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 12, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Laptops on planes: An article in Friday’s Business section about travelers with laptops said Hewlett-Packard Co. sent a memo to 8,200 employees around the world warning of raised terrorist threat levels and security requirements. HP has 150,000 employees worldwide, and the message went out to all of them. The company has 8,200 employees based in Britain.

“You have to learn to live without it,” he said with resignation. He was on his way home via London to Paris, where he runs a digital film company. “You just have to hope that it’s not going to stay the policy forever.

“It will be complicated to be a business traveler if you can’t work anymore during these 10-, 12-hour flights.”

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It was many a business traveler’s nightmare: getting on an airplane without a laptop. And it happened to thousands of passengers Thursday flying in and out of London’s Heathrow Airport.

After threat levels were raised at airports around the world, restrictions were slapped on carry-on luggage of all kinds, but nothing seemed more precious to business travelers than their portable computers.

“As much as the cowboy of the last century wouldn’t think of walking around without a gun, these technologies are key tools for people’s lives,” said Ben Shneiderman, author of “Leonardo’s Laptop,” a book that explores people’s relations with the portable computer.

“Time is scarce, and wasted time on long flights is really an annoyance. There is the pressure to get work done all the time,” he said.

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Despite initial media reports, there were no plans Thursday to require domestic travelers to check laptops as baggage, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Still, U.S. travelers headed to Heathrow and beyond fell victim to the ban.

Corporations big and small were quick to put their traveling employees on alert with abundant instructions for such things as carrying on suntan lotion and skipping cross-country business meetings.

For many employees, top concerns were the laptop, the cellphone and the BlackBerry, vital electronic appendages in today’s business world.

About 65 million laptops were sold worldwide last year, according to research firm IDC. And that number is increasing.

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Fear of high-tech separation anxiety was coupled with passenger concerns that Thursday’s restrictions might be just the beginning.

Quick in-and-out business trips seemed at risk. Suddenly, hours-long check-in lines, lost baggage and hours of unproductive time loomed large.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said the restrictions at Heathrow had changed assumptions travelers made about what they were entitled to on the plane.

“Last week the thought of a business traveler not being able to take his or her laptop or overnight bag on a plane would have been unthinkable,” Mitchell said. “This week it’s thinkable.”

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Bill Connors, executive director of the National Business Traveler’s Assn., said that by Thursday afternoon his association had received dozens of e-mails asking about laptop restrictions from members.

“I think in the short term it’s a big concern, but it should improve once they get this sorted out,” Connors said. “Frequent business travelers have been through this before, so I don’t see any corporations hitting the panic button.”

At larger corporations such as UBS and Hewlett-Packard Co., teams of staff members who usually organize travel were transformed into crisis managers.

At HP, a memo was sent to 8,200 employees around the world by 4:15 a.m. PDT, warning of the raised threat levels and the security requirements.

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Laptop computers were at the fore of the discussion, said Ryan Donovan, a company spokesman.

“We’re an IT company, so everybody uses a laptop,” Donovan said. “Our job is to make employees aware of the restrictions and then leave it to their judgment as to where to pack it.”

Having surrendered their business tools, passengers were forced to alternatives: watching the in-flight movie, sleeping and maybe reading a book.

At a Border’s bookstore at Heathrow, the suddenly laptop-free travelers were among the store’s best customers.

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Popular titles included “Freakonomics” and “The World Is Flat,” said Jonathan Daniel, the store’s supervisor. “If they hadn’t been able to get books, I think they would’ve been quite frustrated.”


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