There's a theory the US ban on laptops in planes is a trade retaliation against government-funded airlines

An Emirates airlines Airbus A380 at Tehran airport. Photo: Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty Images

The British government last night fell in behind the US in introducing a ban on laptops and tablets being brought into passenger cabins on flights from certain overseas countries.

The US announced its ban on Tuesday, with a senior administration official explaining on a media call: “Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items.”

The airports affected by the US ban include:

  • Queen Alia International Airport (AMM) in Amman, Jordan.
  • Cairo International Airport (CAI) in Cairo, Egypt.
  • Ataturk International Airport (IST) in Istanbul, Turkey.
  • King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
  • King Khalid International Airport (RUH) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
  • Kuwait International Airport (KWI) near Kuwait City, Kuwait.
  • Mohammed V Airport (CMN) in Casablanca, Morocco.
  • Hamad International Airport (DOH) in Doha, Qatar.
  • Dubai International Airport (DXB) in Dubai, UAE
  • Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
A British Airways plane taxis from Heathrow’s Terminal 5 on October 25, 2016 in London, England. Photo: Dan Kitwood/ Getty Images.

However, the British ban operates a little differently and will apply to direct flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia. It affects British Airways, Easyjet, Jet2, Thomas Cook, Pegasus Airlines, Turkish Airlines, MEA, Egyptair, Tunisair, and Royal Jordanian.

But the US ban applies to the UAE as well, which houses two of global aviation’s emerging powerhouse hubs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

There has been much speculation about the nature of the intelligence behind the ban, including why it would be OK to have laptops in the cargo hold and not in the passenger cabin.

An analysis published in The Washington Post offers 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.

What we do know is that the emirati airlines — Etihad of Abu Dhabi and Emirates of Dubai — have burst into global aviation markets over the past decade. Compared to the US domestic airlines their levels of cabin comfort and service are vastly more advanced and modern, and the business travel market is key to the profitability of airlines.

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