Is the US ban on hand-carrying gadgets really about laptops?

The Department of Homeland Security's restriction on electronic devices other than mobile phones on certain US-bound flights appears to be aimed at Middle Eastern airlines that have given American carriers a tough time.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Decisions by long-haul passengers are likely to be affected by the restriction of airlines to allow electronic devices for work or entertainment.

Updated Mar 24, 2017

What prompted the gadget ban?

The step taken by Washington on March 21 to bar passengers at 10 airports in the Middle East and Africa from taking devices larger than a smartphone into the cabin will have larger consequences than just inconveniencing travellers. Here's a look at what contributed to the decision.

Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways, three of the most highly-rated airlines in the world, have added dozens of flights to New York, Chicago, Washington and other US cities in the last few years.

America's biggest airlines – Delta, United and American Airlines – have been lobbying against the expansion of Middle Eastern carriers' operations in the US travel market for over two years.

The following letter was sent to US President Donald Trump right before the ban. 

US carriers say the expansion of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar-based airlines was fuelled by assistance from their oil-rich governments. They have received over $40 billion in state subsidies, which has allowed them to beat the competition, Partnership for Open and Fair Skies, a coalition of American airlines, said.

As the American airlines were not able to convince the administration of former President Barrack Obama to check the growth of Middle Eastern carriers, they pressed Trump to take action.

Trump has spoken about protecting American companies and preserving jobs on multiple occasions.

Do the Gulf airlines actually threaten the business of American airlines?

The international air travel market is big in the US. Nearly 200 million passengers fly in and out of the country every year.

The three Middle Eastern airlines do not carry nearly as much US-bound traffic as other foreign carriers, such as British Airways and Germany's Lufthansa.

The ban which goes into effect on March 25 affects 18,000 daily passengers travelling from the 10 airports to the US, according to Flight Global. That number is negligible considering the hundreds of thousands who travel to the US each day.

But the type of passenger really matters. Especially the people who tend to use the Gulf airlines – a fact that bothers their American counterparts.

"A lot of it is high-yield business traffic going to the US from countries like India and Pakistan," Airline Ratings Editor in Chief Geoffrey Thomas told TRT World. Such passengers pay higher fares for long-haul flights, Thomas said.

Among the airlines affected by the ban, Emirates stands to lose the most. It flies 7,000 passengers to the US every day. (Reuters)

What are the US government's reasons for the ban?

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said intelligence reports suggest terrorists might be planning to carry out attacks on airlines.

Attempts to smuggle explosives on planes have been made in the past, it said.

A Daallo Airlines jet with 74 passengers on board was attacked in a similar manner in Somalia early last year. The explosives were hidden in a laptop and were detonated after the flight took off.

"Terrorists have historically tried to hide explosives in shoes in 2001, use liquid explosives in 2006, and conceal explosives in printers in 2010 and suicide devices in underwear in 2009 and 2012," DHS said in a statement.

The explosion on a Daallo Airlines flight last year blasted a metre-long hole in the jet. Investigators say the explosives were hidden in a laptop. (AP)

The DHS says passengers coming to the US from the 10 airports will have to put their laptops, tablets, cameras and other devices in their check-in luggage which goes into the plane's cargo hold.

Is carrying laptops in the aircraft's cargo hold safe?

"We have been told repeatedly for years not to put lithium batteries in the [cargo] holds of aeroplanes," said Thomas.

"Yet we are told now that it's absolutely safe to put lithium-powered laptops and cameras there. This does not make sense."

This confusion exists within the government. The Federal Aviation Administration, the US airline regulator, gives clear instructions on its website that passengers must keep laptop and camera batteries in carry-on baggage.

These new restrictions have come at a time when the Trump administration is contesting a controversial travel ban on passengers from several Muslim-majority countries. (Reuters)

The gadget restriction has led some people question: What difference does it make if an explosive-laden laptop is in the cabin or the cargo hold?

As a matter of fact, it does make a difference. It is safer to douse a fire within the cabin if something goes wrong.

How will this impact the airlines forced to impose these restrictions?

The DHS directives apply to traffic coming to the US from airports in Muslim-majority countries: UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Egypt.

Emirates, Etihad, Qatar and other airlines which are based in these countrie, have built their business around hubs such as Dubai airport. They make money by flying in passengers from Asia and Australia to these hubs before putting them on connecting flights to Europe and the Americas.

In the case of Emirates, around 80 percent of its passengers fall in this transit category. This makes it susceptible to losing passengers who do not want to travel without their gadgets in hand.

Almost all carriers owned by the affected airlines have entertainment systems. However, business and tech travellers want access to their laptops and high-performance machines so they can work during the long flights. (AP)

For example, a Turkish Airlines passenger flying to New York from Karachi would be deprived of a tablet or laptop for 15 hours because it cannot be retrieved from the plane's cargo hold.

Business travellers, who tend to consider their work gadgets a necessity, pay the highest fare.

Turkish Airlines drives 13.5 percent of its revenue from America.

What about crying babies and damaged laptops?

People have reacted with amazement to the ban.

"Those long haul flights with kids and no screens," said one woman on Twitter, using #laptopban.

Even though the affected airlines operate planes fitted with entertainment systems and wifi in some cases, people are still concerned about their restless children.

Many people are worried about damaging their cameras and laptops in checked-in luggage which is transferred through conveyor belts, transported on trucks and often mishandled.

Have other countries also imposed similar restrictions?

Britain has imposed similar restrictions on six airports, also citing security reasons.

However, it came up with a slightly different list of airports under a security radar which excluded UAE and Qatar.

"I am concerned about this contradiction between what the US and UK are doing," said Thomas.

"At the same time, they haven’t included cities like Lagos in Nigeria, which is a security-challenged airport and has non-stop flights to the US," he said. 

Author: Saad Hasan