Laptop ban: Is there a commercial plot?

BANGKOK, 23 March 2017: Trump’s arch enemy, The Washington Post, fielded an alternative explanation for the US laptop travel ban that it claimed was more to do with commercial reasons than a terrorism threat.

Writing in The Washington Post, Wednesday, Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman, professors at George Washington University, suggested that the ban might have been more to do with economic protectionism than a national security threat.

Domestic Homeland Security says the new rules were introduced because of intelligence that shows terrorists are continuing to target airlines flying to the United States.

The Washington Post feature quoted unidentified officials saying a Syrian terrorist group was trying to build bombs inside electronic devices that would be hard to detect.

Demitri Sevastopulo and Robert Wright at the Financial Times suggested non-US observers were sceptical of this explanation.

They noted that the United States was not forthcoming about whether the ban is based on recent intelligence, or long-standing concerns. There was also no explanation as to why electronic devices in the cabin were a concern, and electronic devices in the baggage hold were not.

According to the Washington Post feature there is an alternative explanation.

“It may not be about security. Three of the airlines that have been targeted — Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways — stand accused by their US 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.”

It was noted high ranking executives of major US airlines met with Trump in February.

“These three Gulf 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 travellers 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 travellers 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 US airlines instead.”

As the Financial Times noted, “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 Washington Post feature said it was very likely that the Trump administration would make more unilateral rules justified by the language of national security, but plausibly motivated by protectionism.

Officials have said that the electronics ban only applies to direct flights to the US from select airports, meaning terrorists could circumvent the restriction through connecting flights. Travellers with connecting flights through Europe are typically re-screened before flying to the US, and American officials may have more confidence in screening technology and information sharing there than in the countries targeted by the order.

The New York Times pointed out that “US-bound passengers flying through Abu Dhabi airport were already screened by US customs officials; it is one of 15 airports under the DHS’s pre-clearance programme, which stations more than 600 customs officials at airports across the world.”

There’s also still some confusion about carry-on restrictions for so-called  “fifth-freedom” flights, which can stop in third countries to pick up new passengers.

In a statement to The Verge, Electronic Frontier Foundation International Director Danny O’Brien said that, “While we are still reviewing reports about the ban on carry-on electronics, the rule is troubling on several fronts.

“Devices are vulnerable to being stolen or damaged, which is why people don’t check them. They may also be searched without travellers’ knowledge. The government should be more transparent about the need for the new rule, which affects the privacy of our data.”

A popular reader comment was “competition is the problem, not security or terrorists.”

“Watch and expect to hear from Boeing soon on this abuse of national security concerns that’s really about protectionism.
“The Gulf airlines are among if the not the largest, Boeing customers. How many times and ways can Trump cry ‘wolf’ over terrorists and how many times will people continue to believe him?”

(Source: Washington Post, Financial Times, New York Times The Verge.)