UPDATE: March 31, 2017
ON MARCH 20th, the Transportation Security Administration suddenly announced that all electronic devices larger than a mobile phone are to be banned from the passenger cabins of all flights inbound to the United States from ten airports in the Middle East, Turkey, and Morocco. Devices like laptop computers and tablets can still be carried as checked luggage, but will not be permitted with carry-on bags. Explanations have been vague and the move has left some security experts scratching their heads. Nine airlines are affected: Royal Jordanian, Royal Air Maroc, Turkish Airlines, EgyptAir, Kuwait Airways, Saudia, Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways. No U.S. or European airlines are affected.
The Guardian sums things up better than I could, here. Of the points raised in that story, I would emphasize that the order will result in the addition of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of lithium batteries — a known fire hazard that regulators and safety experts have been working to restrict from checked luggage — to the underfloor holds aboard more than fifty U.S.-bound flights every day. The rest of it is nothing if not peculiar. As the Guardian and others have pointed out, an explosive device in checked luggage isn’t any less dangerous than one in the cabin, necessarily. Bombs hidden in checked luggage have been destroying planes for decades; see Pan Am, UTA, Air-India, Avianca, and so on.
Meanwhile, a majority of passengers flying these airlines are merely transiting through their hubs, en route to or from third countries. The rule also fails to account for passengers whose journeys might originate in, or pass through one of the ten listed airports, but who connect elsewhere before continuing to the U.S. For instance, a passenger gets on a plane in Cairo, flies to Frankfurt, and there transfers to Lufthansa or one of the American carriers for an onward flight to New York, Los Angeles, Boston, or wherever. That passenger’s laptop is legal the whole way. All a terrorist would need to do is alter his routing through any of dozens of European or Asian gateways.
Such obvious loopholes make us wonder how much of this move is in the interest of safety, and how much of it is political. The airlines hardest hit are Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad — the so-called “Gulf carriers,” also referred to as the “M.E.3” — whose flights to U.S. cities all are subject to the ban. The massive worldwide expansion of these carriers, which are state-owned and supported, has become increasingly controversial. Measured by international traffic, Emirates is now the biggest airline in the world, and the M.E.3’s Persian Gulf hubs in Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi, have become a global crossroads, with hundreds of routes linking Asia, Africa, and Australia with the cities of Europe and North America. U.S. airlines have been lobbying regulators and lawmakers, citing an inability to compete with these heavily subsidized giants. Only a few weeks ago, airline leaders sat down with Trump administration officials to discuss the issue and press their cause. The new rules mean that all of the Gulf carriers’ U.S.-bound passengers, including many high-end business travelers, will be forced to fly without their tablets or computers. That can’t be good for business.
The impacted carriers have been scrambling to come up with workarounds. Etihad Airways has begun handing out loaner iPads to its premium class customers. Qatar Airways has gone a step further, lending full-sized laptops. Emirates and Turkish have introduced a gateside concierge service that allows travelers to use their devices right up to the moment of departure. Computers and tablets are collected by hand just before boarding, and sequestered in a special container in the cargo hold. Importantly for passengers, this allows them to use their devices on the first leg of any trip that connects through these airlines’ hubs in Dubai and Istanbul. An Emirates passenger flying from Chennai to New York, for example, need not surrender his or her laptop when first checking in, but may keep it all the way until departure from Dubai some hours later.