The Electronics Ban Is a Stupid (or Evil Genius) Way to Address a Possibly Real Problem

I have absolutely no doubt that there’s intelligence surrounding attempts to hide explosive devices inside electronics. There has been specific intelligence on this before. That’s why at times we’ve had to turn on electronic devices, and It’s certainly conceivable that the technical know how could have advanced to the point that a real working laptop could be used to hide nefarious objects.

Developing a threat in this way wouldn’t be easy, and aspiring to do this is very different than actually developing the capability, but it’s a claim we simply cannot disprove no matter how much the intelligence community has given reason not to trust its pronouncements.

Even accounting for a desire not to tip their hand — which they’ve done in the construction of the electronics ban — or reveal sources and methods, the government hasn’t provided enough of an explanation for its decision for people in a democracy to evaluate or hold it accountable.

But if there’s a legitimate threat, the electronics ban is a fairly backwards way of addressing it.

  • It’s reportedly been developed over months, with advance briefings for legislators, and with airlines given several days to implement — rather than implementing right away.

  • It’s not worldwide. Passengers in affected countries can connect elsewhere to avoid the ban. Want to bring electronics onboard? Fly to Tashkent, Uzbekistan and then on to the U.S.

  • It doesn’t extend to countries where threats may be more real than in Abu Dhabi where the US manages security enough to be comfortable with passengers arriving here and getting off the plane as though they had taken a domestic flight.

    A real ban would have been extended to Boko Haram’s home of Nigeria. But Delta flies Lagos – Atlanta, and the ban isn’t being extended to airports served by U.S. airlines.

    And indeed we’ve seen actual attacks in Paris and Brussels, there have been live cells executing non-theoretical missions there, but those airports aren’t on the list.

As I told Forbes,

“This electronics ban is absurd,” says Gary Leff, aviation industry expert and founder of View from the Wing. “If there were an imminent threat it would apply immediately, and to all flights to the United States. Anyone originating in Dubai could connect elsewhere – Europe, Cape Verde, Uzbekistan – and carry electronics on a flight to the United States.”

The UK has now issued an electronics ban covering some of the countries on the US list — Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, plus Lebanon and Tunisia which don’t have US flights. The UK is not banning laptops on flights from Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha, Casablanca and Kuwait City. They’re looking at the same intelligence that the US is and they’re not using it as an excuse to destroy the viability of flights by the large Gulf airlines.

The ban doesn’t stop people originating in the countries where flights are affected. Those people can fly to an intermediate airport. Instead it inconveniences and redirects connecting traffic. Even if this started out addressing a real threat, the bureaucratic sausage turned it into something with the effect of redirecting traffic away from Gulf airlines and onto US and European ones.

  • Over half of Emirates tickets between the US and Dubai are sold in the U.S.
  • 20% are sold in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh
  • Only 4% are actually sold in the UAE.

This route is all about Americans, and South Asians, connecting in Dubai. Banning laptops on these flights simply forces Americans and Indians to connect over a different city.

Back to Forbes,

“The largest U.S. airlines – the most profitable in the world – have been seeking government protection, higher fares, and fewer consumer flight choices for two years. So far they have been unsuccessful,” says Mr. Leff. “Previously rebuffed, the effect of this ostensible security policy may be to give them what they were after all along.”

It has the effect of giving United, Delta, and American what they’ve been lobbying for over the past two years — hobbling their major competition from the Gulf. And by doing it under cover of security it provides a plausible path towards preserving the Open Skies treaty and Fedex’s Gulf hub. That may not have been the intention, but it winds up looking like evil genius.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Good analysis Gary, not least because of the Nigeria mention. If there’s any place we might want to make sure someone couldn’t bring a laptop-as-weapon onto a plane and might have the ability to do so due to lax or easily corrupted security, it would be there.

    I’m still scratching my head over this, though. Adam Schiff, the top Dem on the House Intelligence Committee, has endorsed the ban, and I would not think he’d undermine his own credibility by backing a step that is weakly grounded and/or that simply favors US airlines’ commercial interests. But, who knows?

    In other news: I wonder whether there won’t be workarounds that might make this ban not quite so onerous. Couldn’t someone hook up a phone to a regular-size keyboard for work purposes? Years ago, in the era of personal data assistants, such keyboards were easily available; perhaps they’re still around. This would not eliminate the big problem of the phones’ small screens, including the difficulty of reviewing multiple reports, spreadsheets, etc. But it could at least make the preparation of documents and lengthy emails easier.

  2. It may backfire. They have now made it more likely that terrorists will target US carriers with a laptop bomb.

  3. Let’s consider the problem we’re hoping to solve – preventing terrorism. Here’s how the dictionary defines it.

    Terrorism: the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.

    Hmmm, perhaps we should investigate a certain public figure, who’s known for issuing threats for political purposes. I can even guess at their address! Might be more effective than engaging in obnoxious security theater.

    In all seriousness, security is a hard problem, and playing charades with determined attackers will only worsen the impact of an actual attack. We deserve better leadership that this – not more security theater.

  4. I’d still like to know how carrying electronics in the cargo hold is safer than in the passenger area? Pan Am 103 was brought down by a bomb, and certainly since 1988 there must be a myriad of ways to detonate explosives today. That along with all the above listed exemptions make this more an exercise in theater or retribution or both.

  5. @Donald while I am not in supporter of the ban (based on what is available in the public domain), I have read that the scanners for checked baggage are more advanced than the x-ray devices used for carry-on inspection and that combined with the fact that there is more time to inspect the luggage means that checked baggage theoretically gets a more complete inspection than carry-on. I am not an expert and as I said I don’t support this ban but that is one possible explanation for why putting it in check baggage *might* be safer.

    That said I agree with Gary’s analysis that this ban likely has an economic angle. In fact it will very likely push to me Asian and European carriers depending on destination to route around this issue. Along with avoiding certain countries. All my travel is for personal tourism (usually 3 international trips a year) and thus I am pretty flexible on where I want to go and how I get there unlike business travellers.

  6. Well said Gary.

    What I can’t quite figure out is why the UK has joined in, albeit with a different set of countries.

  7. It’s NOT intelligence behind this evil plot to bomb aircraft. It is the demented thinking of worshipers of Mohammed.

  8. Excellent analysis Gary. The major US carriers are likely very pleased with themselves right about now. Clearly, consumers (who want to use something other than a phone on a long-haul flight) are harmed in the short-term. I wonder though whether market forces will have an impact here to rationalize things in the longer term.

    For example, the Gulf carriers realizing that they are at a disadvantage because of the electronics ban, lower their prices even more to compensate. Passengers (predominately leisure I would assume) would then likely have to decide whether it was worth paying more to travel on a US carrier. Clearly this is what the US airlines want, but consumers who don’t care about larger electronics might actually see savings because of this.

    The other thing we are likely to see is more 5th freedom flights. Emirates MXP-JFK is probably the best example of this. You can bet that Emirates is looking closely at putting more connecting traffic through MXP and also seeing how feasible it would be to launch new routes elsewhere in Europe, although I’m sure that would be an uphill battle in the current political climate.

    The ban may even have an impact on the phone market. Frequent international travelers might be tempted to buy a phablet (5.5in+ screen) rather than a smaller sized phone since they know that they won’t be able to use anything larger than a phone.

  9. Perhaps there’s another angle. Westerners can continue to feed themselves with corn syrup, computer games and Hollywood drivel, whilst Asians and Middle Easterners will be forced to improve themselves by reading a book.

    Maybe this is Trump’s grand idea to end terror….

  10. So the gist of your argument is that since we can’t stop everything, then don’t do anything at all. It is like saying since people can speed and drive drunk in places where there aren’t patrol cars we shouldnt have any enforcement at all in the areas where drunk drivers are likely to be. After all these drunk drivers could get a ride to a different location and start driving from there.

  11. Tony, if you weren’t so delusional you would see the hypocrisy of your statements. The violence and terrorist threats, are orders pf magnetude higher on the liberal side. Could you imagine the outrage if conservatives came anywhere close to threats on Obama that the liberals make on Trump?

  12. @Jonathan, I have been thinking of the same workarounds. And if the ME carrier prices come down (which they should) then it makes the market far more competitive for the MECs, which is exactly what the US Big 3 are trying to avoid. Whether in cattle class or J or F there is always g light entertainment, and for those who absolutely beed to conduct business enroute, there are alternatives–paper, perhaps? Or, a bluetooth keyboard with a phablet?

    Also, I dont understand why tablets have to go in the hold. My tablet battery is the same size as my cell phone.

  13. There is absolutely no reason to believe that people in the Middle East don’t LOVE American and the UK. We should trust them completely.

  14. this ban annoys me not so much about cannot use my iPad, but simply I cannot trust those working on the ramp not to steal. if ramp workers have any credibility they wouldn’t have to do the job they’re in.

  15. rob – The video you linked to was filmed in Iran. No one is saying there shouldn’t be high scrutiny for flights coming out of that country.

  16. FlyingBoat – I think the argument is that there’s much bigger security threats than what comes through DOH, DXB, and AUH (AUH in particular since there’s US security personnel monitoring security for US bound flights there.) If those three countries are excluded, this doesn’t get nearly the amount of scrutiny that it does. It is perfectly clear that AA, DL, and UA are scared of EY, EK, and QR. Instead of competing on service, they’d rather see those carriers not fly to the US altogether.

  17. Only a fool speaks out against something without all the facts. Didn’t know everyone here got a security briefing every morning…..

  18. @BB : if you’re so smart, please explain why the US and UK ban list differs. Go ahead, I know you can’t.

  19. BB – You do realize that Gulf carriers get most of their traffic on Gulf to US routes from outside the Gulf…right? A lot of those are business high spend customers who will be disproportionately affected.

  20. Great article Gary. Hard to disagree.

    A practical question: For those impacted by the ban, who are flying J or F and need to work, do QR, EK or any of the other airlines affected offer HDMI sockets at the IFE like SQ does?

    If so, a cheap MHL-HDMI cable, a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse combo and Office for your phone and you’d be good to go.

  21. I’m sure the 1%ers who fly Emirates Business Class could use a Bluetooth keyboard with Office on an iPhone and Android and still be extremely productive.

  22. @BB

    By your logic, we can’t speak out against *any* security measure for which the government doesn’t release “all the facts”—which is most such security measures. They simply say the words “credible threat” and leave it at that.

  23. To co-opt an old saying, “Never ascribe to malice that which can be ascribed to incompetence, except in the case of the Trump administration.”

    If this new regulation were a) implemented immediately upon announcement, b) affected any airports with flights by US flag airlines, c) didn’t affect AUH (which has a US preclearance facility, so apparently our own CBP personnel aren’t competent to stop the threat?), d) didn’t affect DXB (which, as part of the UAE, has a terrorism index about 1/10th that of the USA), e) did affect LOS, which is in a country with significant terrorism issues but has US flag flights), and f) were accompanied by a statement that we’re working to implement additional screening so that flights can return to normal… then I wouldn’t be suspicious. But since *none* of those things is true, I’m *incredibly* suspicious.

  24. @Flying Boat: Well Said and Well Said. Couldn’t agree with your comments more.
    @RJB: Very Well Said. If people had any idea how badly jihadists want to make an example out of any American, they wouldn’t go anywhere near the middle east.
    @henryLax: I find it funny to be more worried about theft by working folks than bombs by sworn killers.
    @Gary: I’m sure this is a shot across the bow of the Gulf Carriers. But I find it extremely biased to be so offended by an electronics ban, but mocking the US Carriers as cry babies for being upset about 40 billion of overtly anti-competitive government subsidy. It will take decades of electronics ban related booking losses to add up to 40 billion.

  25. @Rob : “working folks” ? do you know how ridiculously poor the ethics and attitudes are of ramp workers ? Stop humanizing those losers.

  26. @henry LAX, et al – What part about not knowing all the facts is difficult to comprehend? Gary nor any of us have all the facts. .Oh I forgot, we live in the age of the internet & wikipedia where everyone is an expert on every debate topic with a click of mouse……

  27. @BB : and you know what facts other than the Alternative Facts that your stupid leader loves to spew ?

  28. This is the “real reason” (quote): This route is all about Americans, and South Asians, connecting in Dubai. Banning laptops on these flights simply forces Americans and Indians to connect over a different city.

    As has been observed, this hurts carriers from these regions the most. It inconveniences and quite possibly drives away their most profitable customers: those upfront with a need to work will switch to other carriers.

    The ban is also nonsense from two other POV’s:

    1. Lithium batteries are banned from cargo and so many of these devices will simply not make it onto the plane, hold or hand luggage. Meaning: passengers that need these devices will switch to other carriers.
    2. You are allowed to carry phones, even though I am pretty sure that phones have been frequently used to set of bombs. So you have your phone in your pocket and the bomb is smuggled into the hold (in a laptop or otherwise). All set to go (pun intended).

    I can just hear a room full of lawyers brainstorming on how they can damage the competition’s business while making it look like it is all for our security.

    BTW – who needs bombs when a simple rental car/truck will do? See Nice and today: London.

  29. @henryLax – Really? Going with the ramp workers as subhumans argument? Impressive retort.

  30. Great analysis…….at least this ban is not being announced by Tom Ridge with amber lights on stage……..but I would bet some of the same analysts that caused those alerts are in the background causing these bans………at what point do you let a terrorist win by hampering your ability to conduct free trade and unfettered travel……….and how safe do you want the world to be before you are willing to go out of your house…… it or not this administration is going to hamper travel in a lot of different ways and I’m not sure that any of the pullback will be healthy for anyone………..

  31. And this is how you start an economic war.

    How long before all these carriers shift their purchase bias to Airbus over Boeing? With all their subsidies they may just spite themselves where the benefits from a Boeing plane are only slightly better than an Airbus model.

    Hard to understand the logic of this one…especially with Lagos and so many countless other airports which are even less secure.

  32. I have no idea how good the intelligence is that motivated this ban, and you don’t either. My suspicion is that the ban is unnecessarily overbroad and that, in the weeks ahead, it will be narrowed.

    That said, the idea that this ban was in any way implemented to help the US airlines is completely paranoid. The same US government that, bending to Boeing, has refused to do anything about the tens of billions of dollars that have been pouring into the Middle East airlines and distorting the global aviation marketplace? Trump may prove more sympathetic than Obama to these concerns, but I’m beyond skeptical that a President who won’t even end their absurd Fifth Freedom rights is going to strike back at them with a laptop ban. That’s pure fantasy.

    And while the US airlines might make a few extra dollars from India-bound executives who might be reluctant to check their laptops, there’s no way these bookings will be material to USA airline earnings. And it certainly won’t stop the moneylosing Middle East flights. If Emirates loses $25 million a flight now, you think the shiekhs are going to care if the flight loses $30 million? Heck, management might just lower fares some more to fill the planes, which would be bad for the US airlines.

  33. From what I understand, the scanners for check-in baggage have the capabilities to detect explosive materials unlike the x-ray scanners for the security lines. They can also spend more time searching check-in baggage without holding up the security lines. And that’s if some of these airports listed, has the type of scanners that can do this. If intel suggests that terrorist are planning to put bombs in batteries, then I think its reasonable to put this ban in place for those airports that are more vulnerable to the threat. I’d like to think the terminals for the ME3 at AUH, DXB and DOH all have the latest technology and security practices that’s on par with the US and Europe though. So banning devices for the ME3 flights does sound fishy.

    As with any new security procedures put in place, its always more of a deterrent than an actual solution. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t (and something does happen).

    With the above said, I don’t like this new ban and its a big inconvenience since I fly nonstop from Abu Dhabi to the US several times a year. I will fly next week and will not bring my laptop, iPad, and camera due to fear of them getting stolen or damaged. I know other people don’t have that option because they need their devices. It just plain sucks and I will probably not fly Etihad to the states in the future if this ban stays in place.

  34. FlyingBoat before you make lunatic statements like liberals are behind terrorists attacks (Islamist terrorists are conservative religious extremists) I suggest you look at the Terror From the Right website by SPLC the top recognized authority on US domestic terrorism that documents one right wing terrorist attack per month since your boy McVeigh blew up the OKC Federal Building on complaints that exactly mirror today’s right wing Fake news, and drove fat Buford from SC to storm a DC pizza parlor with an assault weapon to find the children Hillary was pimping from the back room. Again the scorecard: One right wing terrorist attack per month for 20+ years, not one single left wing attack.

  35. I completely agree that this makes no sense, and is just another needless element of security theater, but like it or not there is no way I’m going to be flying any of these routes until the ban is lifted. I don’t even like to put my laptop through the x-ray machine for fear of not finding it on the other side, so I certainly can’t deal with the anxiety of having my laptop in checked baggage and worrying for the duration of a long flight what might become of it. This puts to one side the fact that I can’t in good faith ask clients to pay for business class when I can’t work en route, and don’t want to just lose such a big chunk of time without being able to get some work done. I doubt I am the only person who feels this way, and I am envisioning planes — especially in Business Class — which are much less full.

  36. Many here assume that most of the passengers on these flights are from the Middle East. If anyone has flown from DXB or DOH in particular you will know most of the passengers are Western ( and of course lots of Moslem 32 week pregnant women on their way to the USA ).

    I fly a lot from DOH on the world’s best airline, Qatar. I have 2 flights scheduled at this time, one to MIA and one to LAX, both direct from DOH.

    But the ingenuity of the ME carriers shines through once again. Leaving the Yank airlines in their wake. Again. No matter what the Yanks try, the ME carriers are smarter. Thank goodness. None of us want to put up with the rubbish that the Yanks call Business Class or First Class! It’s laughable.

    So now EK will let Business passengers keep theie laptops and electronics until thy reach the gate. At the gate, EK will offer a secure locked container. We simply put out electronics inside, lock it, get an account showing what we have handed over, and then collect at the other end, before immigration. Let’s hope QR do the same and quickly. C’mon Big Al Baker, where are you baby? Make a statement.

    As I said, the Yanks outsmarted once again. They bring in a stupid rule to favour the world’s most profitable US legacy carriers to disadvantage the ME carriers but they have been outsmarted once again.

    I am a big fan of Trump, but after this, after the travel ban, after trying to get rid of the Healthcare Act ( should be paled and replaced immediately ) and failing, it’s starting to look like fail, fail, fail at very turn.

    I reckon this ban will change once some Hollywood liberal wanker ( and there are a ton of them ) gets on a plane, has to hand over his/her laptop and it gets stolen. The fuss and the outrage will be so great they will lift the ban. They’ll call their Liberal senators squealing like stuffed pigs and volia, ban gone.

    Let’s hope it’s Rosie O’Donnell. She fits the bill oink oink. LOL

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