Confusion reigns as experts question motive for U.S. electronics travel ban

The U.S. decision to ban large electronic devices on American-bound flights from 10 international airports sparked confusion among observers Tuesday who were unsure as to how to proceed against the backdrop of an uncertain new policy landscape.

Canada hasn't moved to match U.S. policy of banning large electronics on certain flights

Starting Friday, passengers will not be allowed to bring a laptop in their carry-on if they are flying to the U.S. from one of 10 airports under new security rules. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

The U.S. decision to ban large electronic devices on American-bound flights from 10 international airports sparked confusion among observers Tuesday who were unsure about how to react to the confusing new rules.

In a release, the Department of Homeland Security announced the news banning the use of virtually all electronic devices larger than a cellphone in cabin on flights to the U.S. from eight Middle Eastern and North African nations.

Although the full details of the U.S. plan had yet to emerge, the U.K. government moved swiftly to announce a similar plan, albeit one that targets different devices from a smaller pool of airports.

Earlier reports suggested that U.S. carriers might be somewhat exempt from the rules, but the Homeland Security release specifically says the new rules will be enforced as of Friday on all airlines "at 10 select airports where flights are departing for the United States."

The ban only covers 10 airports in 8 nations, which has many security experts scratching their heads about what's really going on. (CBC)

But even that is a back-handed way of targeting foreign airlines, since at press time, no U.S. carriers offer direct flights to any of the airports named. Which is why the rules achieve the desired result, since the logistics of a selective ban would be even worse.

"If it's some sort of play to favour U.S. carriers," Calgary-based independent airline analyst Rick Erickson said in an interview, "that simply can't be the case."

Erickson says it's not hard to imagine two travellers flying to the U.S. on separate flights out of the same airport. One is on an airline covered by the ban, and one is not.

If terrorism concerns are the point of the ban, "once you get through security you could just give your device to your buddy," he said.

'Major blow'

Others aren't so sure that security issues are the only forces at play. In short, "there might be some competitive questions here as well," says Henry Farrell, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University in D.C.

In an interview with CBC's On The Money Tuesday, Farrell said he can't help but notice that the targeted airports are all the major hubs of three airlines based in the Persian Gulf: Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways.

Flight rules

5 years ago
Henry Farrell, associate professor at George Washington University, on the new ban on personal electronics on some flights 7:51

More than half of the roughly 50 daily flights that will be affected by the ban come from those three airlines, which have made huge gains on legacy carriers in North American and Western European airlines in recent years.

Governments heavily subsidize the operations of all three, allowing them to offer better service at lower prices than other carriers. Which is why biggest three U.S. airlines — American, Delta and United — have lobbied the Trump administration to crack down on those practices which they call unfair.

"These airlines have been very, very nervous ever since Trump came into office that they may be in the target sights," Farrell said. So this move could be nothing more than "the Trump administration is giving U.S. airlines a boost by knocking down their competitors."

That's because they all cater to high-end Western business travellers by giving access to Asia on luxurious planes via a hub-and-spoke system — and all their main hubs have just been made less desirable.

"If you're a business class or first class passenger," Farrel says, "you're probably going to be quite worried" about not having access to your laptop during a 15-hour flight. "You're very likely to choose a different airline."

Others agree with that assessment. "It may not have been directed at the three Gulf airlines, but there will be collateral damage to those carriers," San Francisco-based travel analyst Henry Harteveldt said. "The question is how much."

Differing security rules and protocols at different airports has added to the confusion in the interconnected air travel network. Canada hasn't immediately moved to match the new rules, but that's a clear possibility eventually.

"A decision on whether to implement a similar ban respecting large electronics on flights to Canada will be made shortly," Transport Canada said in a statement to CBC News.

"For security reasons, we cannot elaborate on aviation security concerns. Transport Canada continuously assesses our security and makes adjustments whenever needed."

Security issues aside, Farrell says one obvious impact will be to compel travellers between the West and Asia to choose their routes more carefully.

"If you're trying to travel onwards on to India, you might be best advised to travel with a different airline," he says.

That describes Paula Berger to a tee. The energy company manager was trying feverishly on Tuesday to rebook an upcoming business trip scheduled to depart from Houston through Dubai and on to her company's branch office in Hyderabad, India.

"I've been spending hours this morning trying to find a way to reroute us without it costing $5,000, but I haven't found anything," Berger said. "We might have to suck it up."

With files from The Associated Press


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