Trump won’t allow you to use iPads or laptops on certain airlines. Here’s why.
By Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman for The Washington Post
From Tuesday on, passengers traveling to the U.S. from 10 airports in eight Muslim-majority countries will not be allowed to have iPads, laptops or any communications device larger than a smartphone in the cabin of the plane. If you are traveling from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or the UAE on Egypt Air, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Kuwait Airways, Qatar Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, or Turkish Airlines, and you want to use your laptop on the flight, you are probably out of luck.
So why is the United States doing this, and how can it get away with it?
The U.S. says it’s all about security
The Trump administration says the new rules were introduced because of intelligence that shows terrorists are continuing to target airlines flying to the United States. An unidentified person familiar with the issue has told The Washington Post that officials have long been worried by a Syrian terrorist group that is trying to build bombs inside electronic devices that are hard to detect.
However, as Demitri Sevastopulo and Robert Wright at the Financial Times suggest (see below) non-US observers are skeptical of this explanation. They note that the United States has not been forthcoming about whether the ban is based on recent intelligence or long-standing concerns. There is also no explanation for why electronic devices in the cabin are a concern, and electronic devices in the baggage hold are not.
There is an alternative explanation
It may not be about security. Three of the airlines that have been targeted for these measures — Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways — have long been accused by their U.S. competitors of receiving massive effective subsidies from their governments. These airlines have been quietly worried for months that President Trump was going to retaliate. This may be the retaliation.
These three airlines, as well as the other airlines targeted in the order, are likely to lose a major amount of business from their most lucrative customers — people who travel in business class and first class. Business travelers are disproportionately likely to want to work on the plane — the reason they are prepared to pay business-class or first-class fares is because it allows them to work in comfort. These travelers are unlikely to appreciate having to do all their work on smartphones, or not being able to work at all. The likely result is that many of them will stop flying on Gulf airlines, and start traveling on U.S. airlines instead.
As the Financial Times notes, the order doesn’t affect only the airlines’ direct flights to and from the United States — it attacks the “hub” airports that are at the core of their business models. These airlines not only fly passengers directly from the Gulf region to the United States — they also fly passengers from many other destinations, transferring them from one plane to another in the hubs. This “hub and spoke” approach is a standard economic model for long-haul airlines, offering them large savings. However, it also creates big vulnerabilities. If competitors or unfriendly states can undermine or degrade the hub, they can inflict heavy economic damage.
The United States is weaponizing interdependence
As we have argued in the past, and talk about in forthcoming work, this can be understood as a variant form of “weaponized interdependence.” We live in an interdependent world, where global networks span across countries, creating enormous benefits, but also great disparities of power. As networks grow, they tend to concentrate both influence and vulnerability in a few key locations, creating enormous opportunities for states, regulators and nonstate actors who have leverage over those locations.
In this context, the United States is plausibly leveraging its control over access to U.S. airports, which are central “nodes” in the global network of air travel between different destinations. It is using this control to attack the key vulnerabilities of other networked actors, by going after the central nodes in their networks (the hub airports) and potentially severely damaging them.
There may not be much that Gulf airline carriers can do
Gulf airlines have tried to defend themselves against political attacks from U.S. competitors by appealing to free trade principles. The problem is that standard free trade agreements, such as World Trade Organization rules, don’t really apply to airlines (although they do apply to related sectors, such as the manufacture of airplanes). This has allowed the Gulf airlines to enjoy massive subsidies, without having to worry too much about being sued in the WTO. However, it also makes it hard for Gulf states or the states of other affected airlines to take a WTO case against the new U.S. rules, even if these rules turn out to be motivated by protectionism and the desire to retaliate, rather than real underlying security questions.
If this were happening in a different sector, it would make for a pretty interesting case. States preserve carve-outs from international trade rules when they feel that their security is at stake. Would the United States prevail in a case like this, where there is a colorable security justification, but where there is also a very plausible argument that the real motivation doesn’t have much to do with security? Or would the WTO defer to the United States’ proposed justification? It’s very likely that the Trump administration will make more unilateral rules that are justified using the language of national security, but are plausibly motivated by protectionism, so we may find out.
US and UK bar electronic devices on some Mideast flights
by: Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington and Robert Wright in London for the Financial Times
Airline passengers travelling to the US and UK from several Middle Eastern and north African countries have been barred from carrying large electronic devices into the main cabin under new counter-terrorism measures.
The US Transportation Security Administration on Tuesday told nine airlines that operate direct flights to America that they had four days to implement the new rule. The measure will affect flights departing from 10 airports in eight countries: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Turkey, Egypt and Morocco.
The UK followed suit, saying it too would immediately impose similar device restrictions, but it added flights from Tunisia and Lebanon to its list, and excluded those from the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Morocco.
“We face a constantly evolving threat from terrorism and must respond accordingly to ensure the protection of the public against those who would do us harm,” the UK government said on Tuesday.
France’s aviation authority said it was conducting a “risk assessment”, but the government had yet to decide how to proceed. Canada said it would make a statement on restrictions later on Tuesday.
The steps taken by the US mark a fresh attempt to tighten security after President Donald Trump vowed to do more to tackle terrorism. It comes two weeks after he issued a revised travel ban that — before it was blocked by the courts — temporarily barred citizens of six largely Muslim nations from entering America.
Western intelligence officials said the measures were taken because of threats posed by the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, widely viewed as among the most sophisticated bombmakers among international terrorist organisations.
The group has been making efforts to export its bomb-making expertise across north Africa and the Middle East, one senior UK official said, including to networks with significant footprints in some of the countries listed in the ban.
Passengers flying to the US from the eight countries will have to put laptop computers and other big devices, such as tablets and cameras, in their checked luggage under the measure.
The new US measures will hit the operations of the big three Gulf airlines that have become the most important force in long-haul aviation over the past two decades and which have extensive operations between the US and their international hubs in the Gulf. All rely heavily on passengers who transfer between points in Asia, Africa and the Middle East to reach countries in the west, including the US.
The biggest impact will be felt by Emirates, which operates 119 weekly flights between Dubai and US destinations including New York and Los Angeles. Qatar Airways, which operates between its Doha hub and the US, and Etihad, which flies Airbus A380 superjumbos twice a day between Abu Dhabi and New York, will also be hit.
The rule also affects Saudi Arabian Airlines, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Turkish Airlines, EgyptAir and Royal Air Maroc. US airlines do not operate direct flights from the eight countries to the US.
The UK ban affects 14 airlines — both foreign and domestic — including British Airways, EasyJet and Turkish Airlines, but not the big three Gulf carriers.
“We think these steps are necessary and proportionate,” the UK government said. “We have spoken closely with the US [about which countries they have included] but we have each taken our own decisions on this.”
A spokeswoman for Italy’s civil aviation authority (Enac) said it had convened an “urgent and restricted” meeting of the interministerial committee on airline security to evaluate the measures adopted by the US. She noted that the ban seemed based on intelligence that was not currently available to Enac.
US officials declined to say what had prompted the move, but pointed to incidents over the past couple of years that had raised concerns about the threat of explosives being brought on to aircraft.
The officials referred to the EgyptAir flight that crashed into the Mediterranean en route from Paris to Cairo last year. While there has been no definitive ruling on the cause of the crash, which killed all 66 people on board, traces of TNT, the explosive, had been detected on the remains of some of the recovered victims, prompting speculation that the flight was brought down by terrorism. There was early speculation that the flight was brought down by a device hidden in a passenger’s laptop computer.
The officials also highlighted a case in February 2016 where a laptop exploded on a Daallo Airlines flight shortly after the aircraft took off from Mogadishu in Somalia.
“Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items,” the Department of Homeland Security said.
Officials refused to elaborate on whether they were responding to new intelligence or whether the administration introduced the measure based on existing intelligence.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, welcomed the move. “These steps are both necessary and proportional to the threat,” said Mr Schiff. “We know that terrorist organisations want to bring down aircraft and have continued to employ creative ways to try and outsmart detection methods.”
Officials said the rule applied indefinitely but authorities would keep evaluating the intelligence to determine if threats remained. They did not explain why there was less risk if devices were transported in the hold instead of the passenger cabin, but said the rule had been issued with input from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We don’t understand why these measures are being applied for Istanbul,” said Sani Sener, the chief executive of TAV Airports Holdings, which operates Ataturk international airport. “We have very high security measures for both regular passengers and for transit passengers when they come to Turkey.”