The travel community is worried that a new security measure banning large electronics on select flights from the Middle East and Africa will dampen global business and tourism and damage the reputation of Gulf carriers.
It could be the latest unintended consequence of the Trump administration’s efforts to beef up national security, advocates say.
Travel groups are urging the administration to grant some exceptions to the tough new restrictions, while Dubai’s Emirates airline has already mounted a public relations effort aimed at containing some of the fallout.
But advocates and lawmakers from both parties agree that the policy may be necessary for safety, underscoring the difficult balancing act for the White House.
“The administration is accountable for both the economy and security,” said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association. “To push all their chips to the security side and not acknowledge the other side of ledger … you’re potentially trading one set of problems for another.”
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced Tuesday that passengers will now be prohibited from carrying electronic devices larger than a cellphone — such as laptops, tablets, cameras and portable DVD players — onto the cabins of certain U.S.-bound flights. Those items could be stowed in checked luggage, however.
The indefinite ban applies to 10 different airports in Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.
While the policy does not target specific nations or airlines, it affects nine overseas air carriers that have a total of 50 daily direct flights to the U.S., according to senior officials. No U.S. airlines are impacted because none of them have direct flights from the select airports.
Air carriers have 96 hours to start enforcing the restrictions and could have their certificate to fly to the U.S. revoked if they don’t comply.
Senior administration officials told reporters that the new security protocols are being implemented in response to intelligence that indicates terrorist groups are “aggressively pursuing innovative methods” to smuggle explosive devices onto commercial flights.
The U.S. government has long been concerned about terrorists hiding explosives in consumer electronics and trying to build bombs with little or no metal, but new intelligence may have spurred the recent airline action. Someone smuggled an explosive device onto a Daallo Airlines flight last year, though the air carrier does not fly to the U.S. and therefore would not be subject to the new security measures.
“The new security measures put in place by the TSA at high risk Last Point of Departure airports are a clear response to the ever-changing threats that we face,” said Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), who chairs the Homeland Security subcommittee in charge of the TSA. “In the current heightened threat environment, aviation remains a top target for terrorist organizations.”
Key Democrats appear to agree. Rep. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffOvernight Cybersecurity: Russia pushes back on Intel hearing | Google offers election security | Fallout from electronics ban worries travel advocates FBI Director Comey hearing a dud for Democrats MORE (D-Calif.), ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, told Marketwatch that he supports the administration’s ban on larger electronics and cited a DHS briefing last weekend.
Florida Sen. Bill NelsonBill NelsonRNC drops six-figure ad buy for Supreme Court, healthcare fight Fallout from electronics ban worries travel advocates Overnight Tech: FCC chief says media isn’t ‘the enemy of the people’ | Fallout from Comey’s testimony | Google apologizes for ads near extremist content | US preps electronics ban on some flights MORE, ranking Democrat on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, also said he “spoke to the intelligence community over the weekend, and this is a real threat.”
But travel groups say that without some intervention and clarification from the administration, the policy could hurt global travel and tourism.
Nearly half of business travelers prefer to stay connected and get work done while flying, according to the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), meaning that prohibiting electronics in carry-on bags could be a huge disincentive to travel — especially on long international flights.
There are also concerns that expensive electronics, with potentially sensitive information, could be more easily stolen if people are forced to keep them in checked baggage.
“Travelers are trained to never take their eyes off their devices, so you’re really forcing a situation that’s in conflict with what people are being trained,” said Michael W. McCormick, executive director and COO of GBTA.
The electronics ban — which comes as more airlines are scaling back on in-flight entertainment options because of the prevalence of tablets and laptops — could discourage business and leisure trips involving the 10 select airports, thus taking a financial toll on the economy.
Similar criticisms were levied against Trump’s temporary ban on refugees and travelers from several majority Muslim countries. GBTA found that the business travel industry lost $185 million during the week the initial ban was in effect, while the research firm ForwardKeys found international bookings to the U.S were down 6.5 percent compared to the same period last year.
“As intangible as reputational fall-out can seem, it took us a decade to recover from 9/11,” Grella said.
The electronics policy could also deliver a major blow to Middle Eastern airlines that have worked aggressively to boost their image in the U.S.
Emirates, which tapped actress Jennifer Aniston as a celebrity spokeswoman, posted an advertisement on Twitter Tuesday afternoon that says, “Who needs tablets and laptops anyway?” and highlighted some of its in-flight features.
The three Gulf airlines declined to comment on the ban’s impact, but a senior executive at one of the companies told CNNMoney that he was watching bookings closely and expected them to drop after news of the electronics ban spread.
Stepping up potential criticism is that the United Kingdom announced a similar rule Tuesday, but their ban does not affect Emirates, Qatar and Etihad, which have been major industry rivals in the U.S.
“Major carriers like Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways have been in the fight of their life in America for a couple years,” Grella said. “They’ve done a lot of marketing and have made a positive impact on some markets. It would be a shame if they had to endure all this [again.]”
The U.S. Travel Association is urging the Trump administration to continually reassess the electronics ban and to clearly articulate who is welcome in the U.S., saying such a message could serve as “a chaser that makes the shot more digestible.”
And GBTA wants the administration to expand trusted traveler and PreCheck programs, which allow pre-vetted passengers to skip certain security protocol when they enter checkpoints.
“What we continue to see is the same theme,” McCormick said. “Of course we want to support all the security efforts, but I think when you’re targeting certain areas more than others… you battle the perception problem that we’re not open for business.”
Senior administration officials did not indicate how long the restrictions would last or if they would be expanded to other airports, but vowed to constantly evaluate the situation.
Air travel was completely transformed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but travelers have adapted to policies that may be perceived as inconvenient, such as being required to take off their shoes and to pack limited liquids in their carry on bags.
Security experts point out that protocols are always changing because terrorists are constantly looking for new techniques to evade screening. The electronics ban could be the next evolution of those threats.
“If you trace the history of aviation security, you can pretty much draw a straight line between some of the techniques used in airports today and incidents like the underwear bomber,” which led to the use of full-body scanners, said Dan Gerstein, senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation. “Every time we’ve seen an action by a terrorist, we’ve seen some sort of counter reaction in airports.”
Fallout from electronics ban worries travel advocates – The Hill