In a poorly rolled out bit of security theater, the US just banned people from carrying laptops, cameras, and tablets—but not phones—in the cabins of airliners traveling from several Middle Eastern and North African cities to the US.
The regulation affects fliers from Amman, Cairo, Istanbul, Jeddah, Riyadh, Kuwait, Casablanca, Doha, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. It’ll also affect anyone connecting through those airports. No US airlines fly into any of these airports.
Note that Abu Dhabi is involved. Abu Dhabi (AUH) has US customs preclearance, meaning there’s a massive staff of US Customs agents on the ground at that airport. “The aviation security benefits of Preclearance are substantial because a uniformed, U.S. law enforcement officer interviews the precleared passenger before he or she boards the plane,” DHS says. “This added security layer provides an additional opportunity to detect and stop threats as early in the process as possible.”
If DHS is saying that security procedures at AUH are inadequate, it’s indicting itself.
The DHS notice doesn’t give any evidence of specific threats leading to this new ban, which will go on indefinitely. It doesn’t explain why a bomb can explode in the cabin but not the cargo hold, or why travelers but not airline employees are affected. While it has a 30-question FAQ about the ban, most of it is meaningless weasel words adding up to “trust us.” The more you think about any aspect of this ban, the less it makes sense from a security perspective.
Oh, another twist: while any lithium battery allowed in carry-on baggage is permitted in checked baggage, airlines usually disclaim responsibility for damage to laptops and cameras placed in checked baggage. In other words, anyone connecting through one of the affected airports is risking thousands of dollars of electronics being destroyed. It’s safe to say that US-based travelers won’t be connecting through these hubs very often.
I have to think something else is going on here. Spoiler: there is.
US3 vs. ME3
For several years now, the three major US airlines (American, Delta, and United) have been at war against Emirates (based in Dubai), Etihad (based in Abu Dhabi), and Qatar (based in Doha) in an endless argument called “US3 vs. ME3.”
The US3 airlines say that the ME3 airlines get massive government subsidies that allow them to offer high-quality but unprofitable service into the US, to the detriment of the US airlines. They say the ME3 collude with each other, their airport authorities, and their governments to subsidize operations in a way that purely commercial airlines—in countries with more open economies—can’t possibly compete. The ME3 airlines say the US3 are just sour-graping and taking profits rather than investing in their products.
The pivot point in this battle isn’t actually flights from the US to the Middle East. It’s that in 2013, Emirates started flights between the US and Europe (with connections on to its hub), cutting into US airlines’ most profitable routes.
The fact that the ban also involves connecting flights is very meaningful here, because almost all of the ME3’s business is in connecting flights. (Nobody actually wants to go to Doha.) This cripples the ME3 airlines’ appeal for people from all around the world trying to access the US.
There are more than two sides in this battle. JetBlue has sided with the Middle Eastern carriers because it codeshares with them. FedEx has sided with the ME3, too, because it doesn’t want to upset the network of treaty rights it uses to ship packages around the globe. US labor unions, meanwhile, side with the US3.
Sweeping up Saudia, Kuwait Airlines, and Royal Jordanian in the mix serves a secondary purpose for our administration, which has been trying for a few months to make it more difficult for Middle Eastern-based travelers to get into the US. Courts have been stopping the Trump administration’s increased immigration restrictions, but these safety regulations don’t come under the same level of judicial scrutiny.
Okay, Back to Tech
The ban leverages a major shift in the way travelers have used technology over the past five years, which I’ve been hearing from hotels and airlines.
The TV screens in hotel rooms have been staying dark more often, as travelers turn to their own devices for entertainment. Hotels have been busy trying to figure out how those TVs could be used as monitors for the things you really want to watch—whether it’s by including Netflix on the hotel TV, as I saw at a Marriott in New York, or streaming from your phone to the TV, as I saw at a Delta hotel in Toronto.
On airlines, the seatback TV screens have become less meaningful as more people bring their tablets, laptops, and cell phones to watch video. Gogo, the in-flight Wi-Fi company, has a product that streams movies to your device rather than relying on a built-in video screen.
If you’re trying to fill your 10-hour flight with entertainment rather than productivity, a phone should be just fine. That’s how I spent a recent 14-hour flight from Seoul: I loaded up a bunch of shows on a MicroSD card, put on my noise-canceling headphones, and watched them on my Samsung Galaxy S7. It’s easy, now that Netflix and Amazon have offline modes.
But business travelers assume they’ll have access to their laptops on flights. A tech-free, or even a tech-lite flight isn’t much of a flight at all in 2017. So by targeting our gadgets, the government can take an entire airline down. I’m convinced that’s what they’re really trying to do here.