Mideast Airlines Face Laptop Bans on Flights to U.S., Britain

  • Large electronic devices must be stowed amid security alert
  • Turkish Air, Emirates among carriers exposed to curbs

U.S. Said to Curb Devices on Flights From Middle East

Middle Eastern airlines faced new travel curbs after the U.S. announced a bar on people carrying large electronic devices onto flights bound for the country, citing security concerns. Britain followed suit hours later.

The U.S. rule targets services from cities including Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Cairo and Istanbul and may affect about 50 flights a day. Analysts predicted check-in delays as airports grapple with breaches of the prohibitions and a possible drop in aircraft occupancy if people take alternative routes.

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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the curbs on flights from eight countries were a response to “evaluated intelligence” suggesting that terrorist groups were targeting airlines with innovative methods, including “smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items.” Britain limited its ban to services from six nations, excluding the biggest Persian Gulf carriers.

The measures came weeks after President Donald Trump sought to stop most citizens of several predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern and African countries from entering the U.S. That move is being challenged in court. The latest rules also coincide with attempts by American carriers to have the government stem U.S. access for Gulf rivals they say have benefited from illegal state aid.

Bloomberg’s Andrew Barden reports on "Bloomberg Markets: Middle East"

Markets: Middle East." (Source: Bloomberg)

Turkish Airlines and the three top Gulf operators, led by Dubai-based Emirates, have the most to lose from the U.S. ban since they rely on transfer passengers who may need access to laptops and other devices for business reasons and could easily travel via European hubs. No U.S. carriers fly to the affected cities.

Read more: What the ban means for air travel -- a QuickTake

“This isn’t right,” Turkish Transportation Minister Ahmet Arslan said in Ankara, adding that the U.S. shouldn’t conflate security standards at Istanbul’s Ataturk hub with those at smaller terminals. Turkey fears the curbs will decrease in-flight comfort and passenger numbers, and wants the prohibitions “lifted or eased,” he said.

Game Consoles

The Department of Homeland Security issued its directive at 3 a.m. Tuesday in Washington to carriers from Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, saying laptops, tablets, games consoles and portable DVD players are among items that will have to go in the hold. Such devices have been implicated in previous attacks, an official said, pointing to a February 2016 flight by Somali-owned Daallo Airlines in which a passenger hid a bomb in a laptop. Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, said he’d been briefed on the situation and that the steps are “both necessary and proportional.”

Britain’s ban concerns direct flights from Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, like the U.S. restrictions, while adding Tunisia and Lebanon. Aside from the U.A.E. and Qatar, Kuwait and Morocco are also omitted from the U.K. list.

‘Close Contact’

The U.K. has been in “close contact with the Americans throughout this process,” Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman James Slack said in London, while adding that the governments each reached their own decisions.

Devices larger than 16 centimeters (6.3 inches) long by 9.3 centimeters wide and 1.5 centimeters deep will have to be stowed, with the measures to be implemented “over coming days,” the spokesman said. Of 14 airlines affected, six are based in the U.K., including British Airways and discount specialist EasyJet Plc. Canada is also evaluating the situation, according to its transport minister.

Still, the changes may do no more than deflect the terrorist threat since people will still be able to fly from the Middle East via hubs such as Frankfurt, where there are as yet no limits on in-cabin devices, to target U.S. services, said Mark Martin, an aviation consultant in Dubai. “When it comes to aviation, there’s a very thin line between paranoia and precaution,” he added.

Delays Likely

The biggest immediate impact may be on check-in times. While toiletries and other items found to exceed limits on liquids that may be carried through security barriers are usually thrown away, expensive laptops would need to be transferred to the hold or somehow stored at the airport for collection later.

“Nobody will be willing to part from their laptop or tablet on a long-haul flight, especially if you’ve got sensitive data” Martin said.

For many people, that will mean going hours without their laptop rather than switch to a route that may take far longer. Where travel times and prices are similar, the prospect of so much time without a personal device could be enough to cost an airline a booking.

An advocacy group for corporate travelers questioned the prudence of requiring that laptops with volatile lithium batteries be stored in cargo, where a fire couldn’t be addressed as promptly as in the cabin. The U.S.-based Business Travel Coalition also noted the elevated risk of theft for expensive items in checked luggage, as well as inconsistencies in the new rules.

“Making this ban even more questionable is that Abu Dhabi has sophisticated airport security operations sufficient to qualify for pre-clearance” with U.S. authorities, the coalition said in an emailed statement.

Turkish Air and Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways have grabbed a substantial portion of the lucrative market for travel from the Americas and Europe to the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Australia by developing their home bases into huge transfer hubs.

Vulnerable

That strategy has helped transform Emirates -- which serves 12 U.S. cities -- into the world’s biggest airline on international routes. Yet with 80 percent of passengers changing flights rather than entering Dubai, it remains vulnerable to factors that could prompt people to travel via Europe with carriers such as Deutsche Lufthansa AG or Air France-KLM Group.

Etihad said that the situation is further complicated by the fact that people transiting its Abu Dhabi hub will need to stow their devices at their airport of origin, since they’ll have no access to checked bags in the Gulf. The comments also suggest that the airport’s U.S. border checks, unique for the Middle East, won’t make it exempt from the new restrictions.

Bad Timing

The measures also come at a particularly tough time for Mideast carriers, with business travel to the Gulf still depressed by the low oil price and demand for tourist flights to Turkey hurt by a spate of terrorist attacks.

Shares of Turkish Airlines, affected by both the U.S. and U.K. curbs, closed down 2.9 percent at 5.74 liras in Istanbul. The major Gulf carriers aren’t listed.

Trump said on Feb. 9 that he planned to help U.S. airlines compete with foreign carriers unfairly aided by their governments. Delta Air Lines Inc., United Continental Holdings Inc. and American Airlines Group Inc. have been prodding the government for two years to act on claims that $50 billion in state support had enabled the growth of Mideast carriers.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the number of countries affected by the British ban in the third paragraph.)

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