With the United States and the UK enacting sweeping restrictions on the electronic devices passengers can carry in the cabin on inbound flights, the world’s airlines have reacted publicly as you might expect — with a shrug.
Behind the scenes, carriers might be lobbying governments to loosen regulations on some routes. They know that their most lucrative customers, who generally fly in business and first class, expect to have laptops, tablets, and e-readers with them at all times. They also know baggage handlers are not equipped to handle high-value items, which can easily break at some point between the check-in desk and the cargo hold. Some carriers, especially Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Etihad Airways, may be miffed that they are covered by the U.S. ban — though not the UK one — as their hubs in Doha, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi employ some of the most advanced security techniques and screening in the world.
But in aviation, security and safety are considered sacrosanct, and regulators who enforce rules have massive power over airline operations. As a result, most airlines — even carriers who may believe they have been unfairly targeted — issued banal statements on Tuesday promising to comply. If they’re complaining, they’re saving it for private conversations.
The guidelines announced Tuesday by U.S. and UK officials are similar, though not identical. Both countries say travelers departing some Middle East and North African countries may not bring devices larger than a mobile phone into the cabin. Airlines that do not comply by week’s end will not be permitted to fly to the United States or the UK. Authorities say the rules are vital to promote safety against terrorism, and other countries, including Canada, could adopt similar rules.
The U.S. restriction covers Cairo, Istanbul, Dubai, Kuwait City, Abu Dhabi, and Doha, along with Amman, Jordan; Casablanca, Morocco; and Jeddah and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. No U.S. airline flies to any of these countries, so American, Delta, and United passengers will not be affected. The U.S. ban is expected to affect roughly 350 inbound flights per week, according to IATA, an industry trade group.
The UK’s regulation covers flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Tunisia. Several UK airlines, including British Airways and EasyJet, fly from these countries, and their passengers will face the same restrictions as non-UK carriers. IATA estimates the ban will be in effect on roughly 400 weekly flights.
Airlines Warn Passengers
In limited public statements on Tuesday, airlines mostly warned passengers about the new rules, and asked them to be prepared. Like its neighbor Emirates, Etihad Airways said it would begin following the U.S. directive on March 25, just before it is fully implemented.
“Safety and security remain the highest priority for Etihad Airways and we will continue to assist passengers in complying with this directive,” the airline said in a statement.
Turkish Airlines likely will be hurt most from the ban, as it is the largest airline affected by the U.S. and UK directives. From Istanbul, it flies five times per day to London, three times per day to New York JFK and once most days day to Boston, Washington, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Houston.
But it, too, kept its statement short, as it “kindly inform[ed]” passengers that they will have to check iPads, e-readers, and laptops. However, the Turkish government was less charitable in its characterization of the new rules, with the Turkish Transportation Minister saying, “This isn’t right,” according to Bloomberg.
Meanwhile, IATA, which represents most of the world’s largest airlines and sometimes lobbies on their behalf, said it was working with authorities to “achieve greater clarity” on requirements.
In a speech earlier this month in Washington, D.C., IATA’s Director General, Alexandre de Juniac, said he was “deeply concerned with recent developments that point to a future of restricted borders and protectionism.” Given that these restrictions will make it more difficult for some passengers to cross borders, it is possible IATA eventually will ask regulators to balance the need for security with the desire of airlines to promote free movement. But on Tuesday, IATA said it is focused only on security.
“Safety and security is the top priority of everyone involved in aviation,” the group said in a statement.
The statement also seemed to gently chide officials for the abrupt roll outs of the new policies.
“Airlines comply with government requirements and they can do this most effectively when measures are well coordinated.” IATA said.
Other Insiders Are More Candid
While airlines offered muted public responses, others in the travel industry spoke more freely, with some expressing displeasure with how the new regulations were introduced, even if many said they understood they may be necessary for security reasons.
“Even with security as a justification, it does not absolve authorities of the responsibility to communicate,” Jonathan Grella, U.S. Travel Association executive vice president for public affairs, said in a statement.
He urged the administration to continually reassess the ban to make sure it stays “relevant and effective.”
Grella continued: “We continue to hope that highly visible changes to security protocols in the future will be accompanied by a clear message that the government’s intent is not to suppress, but to secure travel, and that legitimate international business and leisure travelers remain welcomed and valued by the United States.”
In an interview, Global Business Travel Association executive director and chief operating officer Michael McCormick said business travelers are accustomed to dealing with new threats and security measures and generally willing to go through some inconvenience for safety.
“The challenge in this case is twofold: One is that — again — the industry and the marketplace and travelers were surprised in effect by the rollout of this ban; there was no notice,” McCormick said. “Which basically creates a challenge for the travelers that are going to be impacted.”
The other issue, McCormick said, is that employers typically have policies that require traveling workers to keep electronics close all the time.
“It really goes in direct conflict with that travelers are being trained from a risk management perspective, which is basically you never let your electronics out of your sight and you keep them with you at all times,” he said.
“Nobody’s debating or disputing that safety and security [come] first, always,” McCormick said. “If those needs are being met, these issues become very real in terms of people being productive.”
With the ban only being applied to certain countries, McCormick said travelers are left to wonder how that rule might change.
“It creates uncertainty for all travelers, wondering is this going to apply to me, will it apply to me tomorrow, do I need to think differently about how I can even complete my business objectives?” he said. “There’s no context for this.”
In recent years, he said operational changes often came with some advance notice so the association could distribute alerts, guidelines, and generally help travelers prepare. There was no heads up this time, McCormick said.
“It allows our industry, which is solely reliant upon and 100 percent supportive of necessary security measures, to support the process,” McCormick said. “It’s part of the issue that we’ve been facing around the executive orders for the travel ban and now this. It has more implications than beyond just those immediately impacted. Part of the job we’re trying to do in this environment is keep people traveling and keep people on the road and keep business travelers and companies confident about business travel.”
New Corporate Policies Expected
Travel security and risk management company iJet International has been fielding questions from clients since news of the ban started to trickle out Monday.
“Some of the information from the government has been rather vague,” said Max Leitschuh, an international airline safety analyst at the firm. “Definitely a big concern for businesses is sending laptops with their company’s data on it in checked luggage because that is more vulnerable to being stolen than a device in a carryon.”
Corporations are telling travelers on affected trips that their policies will be changed for those specific flights, he said. Leitschuh said he expects companies to consider rerouting travel through countries that are not affected by the ban. A traveler flying on Lufthansa from Dubai to Frankfurt to New York is not likely to face the same restrictions as a passenger on a Emirates nonstop flight from Dubai to New York.
At this point, Leitschuh said there’s no good information about how long the ban might be in place. The U.S. government has said only that its ban is expected to remain in place until at least October.
“Since they’re not being very specific about what the threat is, who knows when the threat’s going to be gone?” Leitschuh said.
In a pointed statement, Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, said travelers deserved an explanation for the new security restrictions. He predicted business travelers would be loath to check their devices that hold sensitive information.
“Without any explanation, the United States government banned major electronic devices that constitute the basic tools of business travel from the cabins of flights from select airports in the Middle East,” Koch said in the statement. “But the restrictions make no sense.”
He said if terrorists wanted to use some new technology to carry out an attack, there was nothing to stop them from boarding a flight in another country heading to the U.S. or UK.
“Does the Department of Homeland Security know about a threat so great that it can’t be shared with the business travel industry?” Koch asked. “Or are these latest restrictions about to resonate as the new norm the world over?”