Wall Street Journal
By MARGHERITA STANCATI and NICOLAS PARASIE
March 22, 2017
DUBAI—Passengers and airlines in the Middle East scrambled to make sense of new rules banning many carry-on electronics on flights to the U.S. and Britain on Wednesday, as carriers roll out the new restrictions over the next few days.
On Tuesday, the U.S. and U.K. said they would require most electronic gadgets other than phones to be checked in on direct flights from a handful of Middle East and North African airports, citing worries over terrorism. The governments haven’t cited specific threats.
U.S. officials have given airlines affected—including the Persian Gulf’s big three, Emirates Airline, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways—until Saturday to conform to the new rules. The U.S. rules affect airports in eight Middle East and North African countries, including flight hubs like Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
The U.K. rules affect a slightly different set of airports. Britain is exempting Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City and Doha, Qatar, from its restrictions. The U.K. hasn’t set a deadline for compliance yet.
Officials from some of the affected airlines said they were racing to introduce the new rules on Saturday, as planned. Some airlines appeared sanguine—hours after the restrictions were disclosed, Emirates tweeted “Who needs tablets and laptops anyway? Let us entertain you,” along with a video of actress Jennifer Aniston channel surfing the airline’s in-flight entertainment options.
The airline is also working on “a solution that will enable our passengers to utilize their electronic devices to the last possible moment” before boarding, said Emirates’ President Tim Clark. Devices will then be stowed in the plane’s cargo and returned when the flights lands in the U.S., he added.
“It will mean our passengers, particularly those traveling in the premium cabins or flying for business, can still work on their devices while enjoying our lounges at Dubai airport,” Mr. Clark said.
Turkish officials have publicly criticized the new rules and said they are pushing Washington to change course. Shares in Turkish Airlines and Pegasus Airlines fell Wednesday, with investors fearing the ban could cost the Turkish carriers business. Turkey’s tourism industry has already been hard hit by political instability and a spate of terror attacks and airlines have been struggling to attract overseas passengers.
At least two airlines have already implemented the rules: Qatar Airways introduced them on Tuesday and Saudi Arabian Airlines, known as Saudia, on Wednesday. Kuwait Airways plans to implement them on Thursday and Etihad and Emirates said the new rules would apply on their U.S.-bound flights from Saturday.
At Riyadh’s international airport, staff at Saudia’s check-in counter instructed passengers boarding an early-morning flight to Washington, D.C. to pack laptops and tablets in their suitcases. At the gate, passengers had to undergo a second, full security inspection: metal detectors for travelers and an X-ray machine for carry-on luggage. That is standard procedure for U.S.-bound flights from Saudi Arabia, but this time they were also screening for electronic devices, according to lawyer Christopher Johnson, who was on the flight.
The process “was much better than I feared,” Mr. Johnson said by email during the flight. He was planning to use his smartphone on the journey, saying it could do almost anything a laptop or tablet could, “so long as Wi-Fi works, as it is now, intermittently.”
At Dubai’s main hub, Emirates staff members were warning passengers about the Saturday start to the new restrictions. Some passengers, meanwhile, were rethinking travel plans. Faced with the prospect of not being able to work or watch movies on a laptop, travelers over the last two days have said they may consider connections in Europe to avoid the restrictions.
“I may decide to fly through a city in Europe to travel to the U.S. in the future to take advantage of 16 hours during which I could be working,” said Bassam Islam, a Saudi software engineer, who Wednesday was preparing to board the 16-hour Emirates flight from Dubai to Los Angeles, laptop in tow. He said he hoped the U.S. and U.K. governments would rethink their restrictions.
“I have had things stolen from my luggage before during transit,” he said. “I’ve had a digital camera disappear. My laptop is very important to me—and I don’t like the risk of putting it in my checked-in luggage. I will avoid it if I can.”
Business people in the Middle East have reacted strongly to the new rules, faced with the prospect of working on their phones rather than laptops, or not working at all, during the long flight to the U.S.
However, parents, too, are worried.
“These people making the decision to ban laptops and iPads clearly don’t travel with young fidgety children,” said Amanda Hodge, who is based in Jakarta, Indonesia and sometimes transits through Dubai. She has a 2½ year old daughter who often flies with her. “They will be responsible for the misery of millions of passengers traveling in close proximity to toddlers,” she said.
The U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia have a long history of close military and security cooperation with the U.S., but the new restrictions have caused unease in the two countries, which are among the U.S.’s closed allies in the Gulf.
The U.A.E., in particular, has advanced security measures in place at airports. Abu Dhabi has invested in a pre-clearance facility for U.S.-bound passengers in its airport. This allows passengers to go through U.S. immigration and customs in Abu Dhabi International Airport, a step intended to give Etihad, its local carrier, an edge over its regional competitors.
The U.A.E. will seek to educate U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration on the stringent security measures already in place at its airports, while also trying to understand why the U.S. included the U.A.E. in its restrictions when the U.K. didn’t, according to a local official familiar with the matter.
Saudi officials didn’t comment on the new regulations.
— Asa Fitch in Dubai and Yeliz Candemir in Istanbul contributed to this article.
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