Buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy ride.
Recent changes in aviation policies and procedures may make checking laptops as luggage a reality, heralding an end to the days when they could be tucked safely under the seat or stored in overhead compartments in which items "may shift."
Laptops, in some cases, have been added to the items banned from entering the plane, joining the ranks of liquids and lotions on the Transportation Security Administration's list.
Checking laptops opens one huge can of worms, according to Jack Gold, principal and founder of J. Gold Associates, a Northborough, Mass.-based research and advisory firm. The possibilities range from physical damage resulting in data loss to device and data theft, all of which would be detrimental and could cost companies a bundle. It's time for companies to revisit their travel policies for laptops and plan for the worst; though according to some industry experts, planning now may be too late.
"Anybody who takes a laptop and puts it into a standard suitcase is nuts," Gold said. "They're just not made for that."
As with suitcases, checking a laptop in a standard carry-bag is out of the question. Improper packing can lead to physical damage such as cracked screens and fried hard drives, Gold said, adding that some companies make heavy-duty laptop cases, usually metal and sufficiently padded, that can prevent damage.
Another option, according to Gold, would be rugged laptops or notebooks designed to withstand intense physical demands such as drops, shocks, spills and extreme temperatures. Gold cautioned, however, that replacing the entire deployed base of laptops with ruggedized versions could prove a costly endeavor.
A spokesperson for Itronix, a manufacturer of rugged laptops, said that its laptops are ideal for the bumps and thumps that many bags can suffer during air travel. To be classified as rugged and achieve a military-required standard, Itronix notebooks must be able to withstand being dropped 26 times from a height of three feet on plywood over concrete.
The Itronix spokesperson said that a laptop stuck in the middle of clothes inside a suitcase and tossed by a baggage handler would suffer no ill effects -- nor would its hard drive, which is shock mounted.
Physical damage aside, Gold's main concern is loss and theft, namely the loss of data stored on a corporate laptop.
"Let's face it, things can be stolen," he said. "I can't imagine laptops not getting stolen in the process."
Gold advises protecting the laptop from the inside out. First, companies should use encryption and other mechanisms to secure the data in case the notebook is stolen or falls into the wrong hands. He also advises that companies force end users to back up their data in case the hard drive crashes in transit.
"The bottom line is companies should've been protecting themselves all along," he said.
Gartner Inc. research director Rachna Ahlawat agreed.
"You are more likely to lose data than have the data stolen, so backup should actually be the first consideration before you check a laptop as baggage," Ahlawat said, noting that Gartner will soon author a short report on the topic of laptop travel.
Tim Stowell, corporate network manager for Intermagnetics, a Latham, N.Y.-based manufacturer of large magnets for MRI machines and other medical equipment, said his company has yet to issue a laptop travel policy, but he has been advising staff to take certain precautions and, if possible, to avoid traveling with a laptop altogether.
"Just take thumb drives and put all of the stuff you need on them," he suggested. "My advice is don't even carry a laptop. I've seen the way those bags are handled."
If an end user is traveling to another corporate location, he can use a loaner notebook or borrow one from a co-worker. Using a kiosk at an airport or other location is also an option. Stowell suggests setting up a site-to-site VPN connection.
Stowell, who said he travels about one week per month to Intermagnetics' other sites, added that if having a laptop at the destination is truly a necessity, he would advise shipping it ahead of time. Both UPS and FedEx offer padded and cushioned shipping materials that can help a laptop arrive safely. The item can also be insured to recoup any loss or damage. Gold agreed, adding that shipping is relatively safe and inexpensive compared to the possibly catastrophic results of loss or damage.
"We've done some IT brainstorming, and those are our two conclusions: Either ship it or put what you need on a thumb drive," Stowell said. "If I have to check my laptop, I'm not checking it."
Stowell said he and his team are more concerned with damage to laptops than with theft. "The last thing any of the airlines want is the fallout from laptop theft," he said.
If data theft and hard drive damage are still concerns, the Itronix spokesperson said, some Itronix models feature removable hard drives that can be carried onto the plane while the laptop is checked.
"Your laptop travels, and if it gets stolen, you have your sensitive data on the hard drive," she said. Another security feature Itronix offers for protection against theft is biometric fingerprint scanning. That way, if the laptop is stolen, data cannot be accessed.
Overall, Gold said, protection of both the physical machine and the data it contains are essential to ensure safer travel for a notebook.
"It's a risky world out there and there's nothing you can do to mitigate 100% of the risk," Gold said. "But you can try. There is no magic bullet. The best people can hope to do is protect it by getting a decent case and making sure the data is protected and recoverable."