Gulf air carriers work to contain fallout from electronics ban

Gulf air carriers work to contain fallout from electronics ban

Persian Gulf airlines are racing to contain the fallout from President Trump’s new electronics ban, which affects select airports in the Middle East and Africa. 

Dubai’s Emirates airlines just announced it will be accommodating travelers who want to use their laptops and tablets right up until they board their flight to the U.S.

And other airlines, including Royal Jordanian and Etihad Airways, are mounting a public relations effort aimed at easing the minds of frustrated travelers.

Travel advocates are expressing concern that the new electronics policy could discourage global business and tourism and deliver a major blow to Middle Eastern airlines that have worked to boost their image in the U.S. 

“Major carriers like Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways have been in the fight of their life in America for a couple years,” said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association. “They’ve done a lot of marketing and have made a positive impact on some markets. It would be a shame if they had to endure all this [again.]” 

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Tuesday that passengers will now be prohibited from carrying electronic devices larger than a cellphone — including laptops, tablets, cameras and portable DVD players — onto the cabins of certain U.S.-bound flights. Those items may be stowed in checked luggage, however. 

The indefinite ban applies to 10 different airports in Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. 

While the policy does not target specific nations or airlines, it affects nine overseas air carriers that have a total of 50 daily direct flights to the U.S., according to senior officials. No U.S. airlines are affected because none has direct flights from the select airports. 

Air carriers have until Saturday to start enforcing the restrictions. If the airlines don't comply, they could have their certificate to fly to the U.S. revoked.

Senior administration officials said the new security protocols are being implemented because terrorist groups are “aggressively pursuing innovative methods” to smuggle explosive devices onto commercial flights. The concern reportedly stems from intelligence showing that terrorist groups are trying to perfect methods to conceal bombs in laptop batteries.

In response to the ban, Emirates announced Thursday that it will offer a free new “handling service” to allow passengers to use tablets and laptops during the first leg of their journey or at their gate.

Just prior to boarding a U.S.-bound flight, travelers will then declare and hand over their prohibited electronic devices to security staff. The devices will then be carefully packed into boxes, loaded into the aircraft hold and returned to the customer at their U.S. destination. 

A spokesperson for the DHS said that the service is compliant with the new electronics policy, as long as the banned items are not brought into the flight cabin.

“Our aim is to ensure compliance with the new rules, while minimizing disruption to passenger flow and impact on customer experience,” Tim Clark, the president of Emirates, said in a statement. “Our new complimentary service enables passengers, particularly those flying for business, to have the flexibility to use their devices until the last possible moment.”

The airline was also quick to point out that passengers can still use their smartphones while on board. Emirates says 90 percent of its passengers on U.S.-bound flights using mobile and Wi-Fi connectivity services do so through their smartphones.

“That is not to say that other passengers are not using their devices offline, but perhaps the silver lining to this is that they can now justifiably give themselves a break from their devices, enjoy our onboard service and catch up on the latest movies, music, and TV box sets that we have on offer,” Clark said. 

Airlines also did public outreach on social media. Emirates, which employs actress Jennifer Aniston as a celebrity spokeswoman, posted an advertisement on Twitter that says, “Who needs tablets and laptops anyway?” and highlighted some of its in-flight features.

Etihad Airways posted a similar advertisement titled "Make Flying Great Again," showcasing its entertainment and dining options.

And Royal Jordanian, which has been posting a series of Tweets ribbing the U.S. over the new security protocols, is also offering alternative ideas for how travelers can keep themselves occupied on a long transatlantic flight. Some of the suggestions include "read a book," "meditate," "pretend tray table is a keyboard" and "think of reasons why you don't have a tablet or laptop with you."

 

 

The effort suggests that Gulf carriers are worried about the damage of the electronics ban on their business. Tourists and business travelers who often work while they fly and may be reluctant to put expensive electronics with sensitive information in checked baggage, and they may decide to avoid Middle Eastern airports altogether.

The United Kingdom announced a similar rule this week, but thatr ban does not affect Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways, which have been major industry rivals in the U.S.

Clark told CNN that the security protocols will be "hugely disruptive" for Emirates and he questioned why only some airlines and airports are singled out.

"After all, if these devices are viewed by the United States and the United Kingdom as potential instruments of threat, they can be loaded on any airplane anywhere," Clark said. "To suggest that Dubai doesn't have the equal capabilities or better than the Europeans, the Americans and the Asians in terms of search, interdiction and surveillance, I find amazing.”