The USA has blocked electronic devices larger than mobile phones onboard flights from eight nations to the USA. Now the UK will also join the bandwagon. Here’s why the new electronics ban is a beautiful political ploy but poor public policy.
Let’s start with the admission that the new electronics ban is not due to any specific intelligence or threat. Rather, it is due to potential airport security gaps that the Trump Administration discerned occur only in the Middle East and Northern Africa. As Tiffany points out, interesting that the electronics ban does not include the chaotic Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos. Other airports with questionable security like Caracas, Delhi, and Mumbai are also not included. Could it be because U.S. carriers serve those airports?
Here’s why I think this political genius: this ban is virtually untouchable by courts and achieves a similar aim as the two previous overturned bans. True, this one just inconveniences rather than blocks travelers of certain nationalities, but when enough barriers to entry are erected, the result is the same: less visitors to the USA. I don’t think that keeping certain people out of the USA was the reason for the ban: but it is a welcome byproduct.
Is Protectionism Behind This Latest “Security” Measure?
I took the President at his word when during an airline roundtable at the White House earlier this year he stated—
I know you’re under pressure from a lot of foreign elements and foreign carriers. I’ve been hearing that a little bit. At the same time, we want to make life good for them also. They come with big investments. In many cases investments are made by their governments, but they are still big investments.
Now I am doubtful.
U.S. carriers and the interest groups that back them are undoubtedly rejoicing over this latest ban. Who wants to travel via Istanbul or Dubai to the USA when you cannot have your laptop onboard? While leisure travelers may be indifferent, the high-value business travelers will not forgo their laptops. Especially, when placing pricey electronic devices in checked baggage greatly increases the risk of theft.
So while Emirates Fifth Freedom Routes from Dubai to New York via Milan and Athens are exempt, carriers like Qatar, Etihad, and Turkish will now face an incredible competitive disadvantage. Isn’t it ironic that the ban applies even to flights out of Abu Dhabi, which has U.S. Pre-Clearance? Speaking of the UAE, even the UK ban does not apply to it.
While not “subsidies”, the new measure constitutes government action that takes a side in a commercial battle between carriers under the guise of national security. By exempting U.S. carriers explicitly and through selectively choosing impacted airports, U.S. airlines suddenly become much more appealing. It is a subsidy by a different name, a non-tariff trade barrier.
Again, I don’t think this was the point of the ban, but it was a welcomed byproduct that will lessen calls to dissolve the Open Skies Agreement.
Why the Electronics Ban is Poor Public Policy
Over the years, I have consistently maintained this position: security theatre does not make us safer. I do not dispute that the U.S. has uncovered some intelligence suggesting terrorists are experimenting with bombs concealed in laptop batteries. But I absolutely dispute the response.
If the concern is the danger of electronic devices, aren’t mobile phones the most lethal? After all, with in-flight wi-fi they can act as mini remote detonators. How does a camera or laptop represent a threat but not a mobile phone? Wouldn’t a less draconian policy be simply requiring electronics be re-screened at the gate? What about Lagos, Cape Verde, Dakar, and Tashkent? What about the many connecting options to the USA?
Empower the Public Instead of Scaring Them
I see neither logic or even good intent behind this action. Since U.S. policymakers have been unable to articulate why other than a generalized fear, I see bad intent. News outlets are suggesting that Al-Qaeda chatter has been intercepted concerning a laptop bomb. If this is the case, what purpose would it serve for the US and British governments to hold this information back? By making the entire traveling public more vigilant to those around them, security is strengthened. Was it a screening device or passengers who stopped Richard Reid from blowing up an AA flight? Alert the public to the viable threat. We, the people, are far more effective than moving the bomb from the passenger cabin to the cargo hold…
Three reasons why this new rule is poor public policy. First, it negatively impacts the economy by discouraging business and commerce in the USA. Second, it negatively impacts thousands of Americans and British who travel every day out of the targeted cities. Third, the selection of counties sends an inconsistent message that leads to reasonable speculation about ulterior motives.
Because I do not see any validly articulated safety concern behind this measure (and U.S. policymakers have admitted no specific threats), I discount this policy as shortsighted, tacitly protectionist, and illogical. But it is not illegal and impacted carriers are already complying. I was strongly considering a Kuwait Airways trip in a few weeks as well as a visit to Abu Dhabi. The trip is cancelled. My brother just opted to book Lufthansa instead of Turkish on his Easter trip home. This policy is already having a disastrous economic effect on the impacted carriers when a far less obtrusive means is available to screen electronic devices. It is called a gate inspection.