By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends most of her time in Asia and is currently researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as scribbles occasional travel pieces for The National.
A new ban on carrying laptops and other common electronic devices in hand luggage on direct flights from Middle Eastern airports to the US or the UK comes into effect tomorrow, following surprise announcements earlier this week.
The US on Tuesday announced the ban on carrying anything larger than a smartphone– including cameras, laptops, tablets, and other communication devices– on nonstop flights from ten middle eastern airports– Cairo (Egypt); Amman (Jordan); Kuwait City (Kuwait); Casablanca (Morocco); Doha (Qatar); Riyadh and Jeddah (Saudi Arabia); Istanbul (Turkey); and Abu Dhabi and Dubai (the United Arab Emirates).
Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad Airways are the airlines most affected by the US ban, which also applies to EgyptAir, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, and Turkish Airlines. No US airlines will be hurt, as none fly direct routes from any of the named ten airports to the US.
The UK followed on the same day with a similar but not identical ban, on “[p]hones, laptops and tablets larger than 16.0cm x 9.3cm x 1.5cm in the cabin.” The UK ban targets six countries, four of which are also on the US list– Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey– as well as Lebanon and Tunisia. Fourteen domestic and foreign airlines are affected by the UK ban, including British Airways, but not the biggest three Gulf-based carriers (Etihad Airways, Emirates, and Qatar Airways).
Security Experts Scratch Their Heads
This latest example of Airport Security Theater has left security experts scratching their heads.
Why ban these devices in hand luggage, but allow them to be carried in the hold? This seems to this non-expert to be particularly ridiculous. I’ve seen various torturous explanations, concerning the relative proximity of hand compared to checked baggage to vulnerable areas of the aircraft. I’ve found none convincing.
Moreover, won’t forcing checking of more items create other possible dangers and uncertainties? Many of these devices contain lithium batteries. Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Pack Safe regulation requires:
Spare (uninstalled) lithium ion and lithium metal batteries must be carried in carry-on baggage only. When a carry-on bag is checked at the gate or at planeside, all spare lithium batteries must be removed from the bag and kept with the passenger in the aircraft cabin. The battery terminals must be protected from short circuit.
This covers spare lithium metal and spare rechargeable lithium ion batteries for personal electronics such as cameras, cell phones, laptop computers, tablets, watches, calculators, etc. This also includes external battery chargers (portable rechargers) containing a lithium ion battery. For lithium batteries that are installed in a device (laptop, cell phone, camera, etc.), see the entry for “portable electronic devices, containing batteries” in this chart.
It’s not clear what one’s supposed to do with those lithium batteries included in those portable electronic devices one’s now required to check, as the link noted above is at the time of posting broken. Are these allowed in checked baggage, or not? And if not, can anyone tell me how to remove the battery from my MacBook?
Why ban these devices in hand luggage on flights from the designated airports (in the case of the US ban) or countries (in the case of the UK ban), and allow them in hand luggage that originates elsewhere? If these devices do indeed pose a major threat, won’t those who seek to exploit a security loophole and sabotage an aircraft just shift their plans and board flights for which no restrictions apply?
In passing, I’ll mention briefly another point– no doubt a feature, not a bug: requiring passengers to check in their laptops would now allow for their examination by other parties– including the security services. But does anyone actually think that anyone plotting to commit a terrorist act– or indeed any other serious crime– would be stupid enough to surrender a device and allow for this possibility?
I could continue on in a similar vein, but will stop here. So, since the security rationales for the ban seem rather tenuous at best, what gives? Moon of Alabama was one of the first to highlight the obvious protectionist implications of the ban in this post, Airlines Want Protectionism – U.S. Bans Laptops, Tablets On Competition’s Flights, suggesting that it was put in place at the behest of US airlines. (quoting an earlier post):
The big three U.S. airlines maintain that Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways — airlines backed by governments of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — are unfairly subsidized and that their expansion into the U.S. market represents unfair competition that should be blocked by regulators.
“The Gulf carriers have received over $50 billion in documented subsidies from their government owners since 2004,” the chief executives of the big three wrote in a recent letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “Mr. Secretary,” the letter continues, “we are confident that the Trump Administration shares our view on the importance of enforcing our Open Skies agreements, ensuring that U.S. airlines have a fair and equal opportunity to compete in the international market, and protecting American jobs.”
The U.S. move is certainly not about security. What now hinders anyone to fly from Dubai to Paris and on to New York with a laptop and tablet in her carry on luggage? Why would that be more secure than a direct flight with Emirates Airline? No. This is all about unwanted competition and an effort of the highly subsidized U.S. airlines to sell higher priced tickets with less service.
This point is so obvious, that even The Washington Post picked up on it, in Trump won’t allow you to use iPads or laptops on certain airlines. Here’s why.:
It may not be about security. Three of the airlines that have been targeted for these measures — Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways — have long been accused by their U.S. competitors of receiving massive effective subsidies from their governments. These airlines have been quietly worried for months that President Trump was going to retaliate. This may be the retaliation.
These three airlines, as well as the other airlines targeted in the order, are likely to lose a major amount of business from their most lucrative customers — people who travel in business class and first class. Business travelers are disproportionately likely to want to work on the plane — the reason they are prepared to pay business-class or first-class fares is because it allows them to work in comfort. These travelers are unlikely to appreciate having to do all their work on smartphones, or not being able to work at all. The likely result is that many of them will stop flying on Gulf airlines, and start traveling on U.S. airlines instead.
The problem with this argument is that it’s not only the US that has imposed the ban, but the UK as well. And the UK’s ban includes not just foreign but also domestic carriers, including British Airways. It would be a particularly misguided form of protectionism that would pull in the flagship national carrier.
Safeguarding Checked Baggage: Hahaha
I point out that these bans were imposed apparently without prior consultation with the airlines involved, leaving them scrambling to adjust. Needless to say, neither the US nor UK mandated any accompanying effort from airlines or affected airports to safeguard checked-in baggage from theft or other damage. Currently, airlines prominent warn passengers not to check valuable, fragile, or other essential items in the hold, and the amounts they pay in compensation in the event of mishap are laughable. Standard travel insurance exempts valuables placed checked baggage for loss, theft or damage, according to this Daily Telegraph piece, Laptop ban means your gadgets are uninsured and could be confiscated.
Which leads me to an issue that’s long bothered me. When I travel internationally, I carry my laptop (a MacBook with a 15-inch screen), a Nikon camera (with two lenses), and a much loved, beautifully-designed, 25-year old pair of Zeiss 7x 42 binoculars for birdwatching. Add noise-cancelling headphones, a light shawl to insulate me from a too-cold cabin, an eyeshade, a book (or two), and whatever medicines I might need (usually none), and I’m often way over the maximum carry-on weight for international flights. Not surprisingly, since I fly coach, I often get flagged at check-in, and end up having to show the agent the contents of my hand baggage. I then ask– politely, ever so politely– what, exactly, does the agent suggest I should check through? Nearly all of the time, I get waved through– save for one unfortunate incident in the UK– was it Heathrow or Gatwick?– where I was forced to wear my camera and binoculars, dangling from straps around my neck, before the agent would give me my boarding pass. (As soon as I had cleared security and reached the gate, I put the items back into my carry-on bag.)
I would gladly check through at least some of these items, if airlines could ensure they wouldn’t either be pilfered or smashed in transit, or lost completely. Now I understand that aircraft baggage handling is a legacy system and can’t be changed without incurring significant costs and imposing considerable hassle. But in the days where I imagine most of the backstage of airports is under CCTV surveillance– is it too much to expect that one would be able to check a bag through to a destination and have all the items therein arrive intact? (Perhaps this ban will force a long overdue upgrade of checked baggage handling systems? Just kidding.)
Airline Response: Jokes and Japes
Some affected airlines have quickly responded with some plans to allow passengers to use laptops and other on long-haul flights on the portions that fly into the affected airports. In Laptop ban: How airlines will soften the impact, The Australian reports:
But airlines are already introducing measures that will soften the impact of the ban and make it more possible for passengers to access their files and work productively on the way to the US and UK.
Overnight Emirates announced that passengers travelling to the US via Dubai can use their laptops and tablet devices on the first part of their journeys, and also during transit in Dubai.
“They will then need to declare and hand over their laptops, tablets, and other banned electronic devices to security staff at the gate just before boarding their US-bound flight,” the airline told The Australian.
Other airlines have responded with attempted humor, as the Los Angeles Times reports in, In an ad featuring Jennifer Aniston, Emirates Airlines asks: ‘Who needs tablets and laptops anyway?’ Royal Jordanian instead opted for ads on social media listing 12 things to do on a 12-hr flight with no laptop or tablet, including, “Say hello to the person next to you,” “Meditate,” “Spend an hour deciding what to watch,” and “Appreciate the miracle of flight,” as Scroll India notes in US electronics ban: Emirates plans laptop service, Royal Jordanian encourages fliers to read book.
For the record: I didn’t find these suggestions very funny either.
Impact on US Tourism? Not Funny Either
Tourism in the United States is already slumping due to concerns over the Trump administration, as the Los Angeles Times has reported in The Trump slump? Tourists say they’re scared to visit the United States. Although no one really knows for sure how the latest ban will hit tourism and business travel, they surely cannot help.
The bans are certainly of major concern to Asian travellers– especially those with few options for travelling by air to the US without passing through Gulf airports. Travellers from Kolkata, for example, to cities either on the east coast or in the mid-west of the United States, will be badly hit– with 90% of them currently travelling through Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai. So far, Indian press coverage suggests that travellers are prepared to cope– although I should note, the US protectionism rationale has been given prominent play.
Yet patience for US policy peculiarities may erode, if, for example, they find their electronic devices confiscated, as The Times of India reported in Airlines get busy on gadget dikta. Currently, a passenger boarding a flight from an Indian city to an affected airport would be allowed to board with a banned item in hand baggage, since the ban applies only to direct flights to the US. But the passenger would not be allowed to take the item as hand baggage on the onward connecting flight. What happens next? “If there is enough time, the passenger will be asked to submit the bag as check-in baggage and in case there is no such time or option, the items will be confiscated,” according to an airline official.
This issue is just another one that might exacerbate concerns and confusion about just how welcoming the US is to visitors (issues I touched on in this earlier post).