Travelers from eight different Muslim-majority nations will no longer be allowed to carry laptops, tablets, or certain other electronic devices with them in the cabin on flights inbound to the U.S., according to new rules that take effect on Tuesday. The U.K. was quick to announce that it would follow suit with a Muslim laptop ban of its own.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration say that the new rules reflect a potential threat of terrorists smuggling explosive devices on board planes using portable electronic devices—iPads, Kindles, and the like. The DHS guidance cites a 2016 attempted airliner downing in Somalia as one recent incident that could be linked to a laptop bomb. The U.S. rules affect last-point-of-departure airports from 10 airports—some of them the busiest hubs in the Middle East—from Saudi Arabia to Istanbul to the UAE.
Behind the order, though, lies a long history of conflict between America’s big three carriers—Delta, United, and American—and their peers in the Gulf. Critics spied an ulterior motive behind the Trump administration’s new rule: a protectionist measure for U.S. carriers promised by President Donald Trump.
Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman floated this notion in the Washington Post, suggesting that the financial security of United, American, and Delta might be behind the new counterterrorism measures. The U.S. airlines have grumbled for years that their counterparts from the Gulf—specifically Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways—benefit unfairly from government subsidies. Those carriers have recently expanded their service to U.S. cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C. (as any Washington Wizards fan can tell you, since Etihad is a major advertiser in the Verizon Center).
Back in February, the chief executives of United, American, and Delta sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson complaining about the “massive subsidization of three state-owned Gulf carriers … and the significant harm this subsidized competition is causing to U.S. airlines and U.S. jobs.” In a meeting with the executives shortly thereafter, Trump promised “phenomenal” tax relief, broad deregulation, and other forms of support to the industry.
It’s not yet clear whether this laptop travel ban applies exclusively to all inbound flights from Muslim-majority airports or just those from Gulf carriers. If the latter, that would be a boon to U.S. operators. International business-class travelers—and there are a lot of them circulating between the U.S. and the Middle East—are bound to prefer flights that allow them to work on the plane. During a 14-hour nonstop haul from Dubai to Dulles, passengers are likely to appreciate all the electronic conveniences and entertainment they can carry.
But a one-sided ban would also be a plain violation of trade rules. Global airline carriers have been duking it out over national subsidies for years. In September, the World Trade Organization ruled that the European Union had been illegally propping up Airbus to the tune of $22 billion, a decision that the Washington Post described as “the most expensive dispute in international history.”
The Financial Times reports that the rule applies only to non-U.S. carriers: Saudi Arabian Airlines, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Kuwait Airways, Turkish Airlines, EgyptAir, and Royal Air Maroc. Several of these state-owned airlines have indeed enjoyed massive subsidies from their governments. But there’s nothing in the guidance released by Homeland Security that specifies those carriers or otherwise exempts U.S. domestic airlines from the electronics ban. DHS is specific only about the 10 affected airports.
According to CNN, domestic carriers are not affected by the ruling because they do not operate any direct flights to the U.S. from those airports. A travel engine search corroborates and complicates that explanation. Delta runs flights from Cairo to Washington, D.C., that are operated by Air France, for example. British Airways operates American Airlines flights from Istanbul to New York. Both Delta and United operate inbound flights by other carriers—Lufthansa, KLM, and so on—from the restricted airports.
Homeland Security has not responded to a request for clarification. Across the pond, an electronics ban is even more more complicated, since Qatar Airways has increased its ownership stake in the parent company for British Airways to 20 percent after Brexit. A U.K. electronics ban in the Gulf would bite the hand that feeds British Airways.
These bans may be motivated by urgent and legitimate national security concerns. Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a Democrat, says that the electronics ban is justified. There is a debate to be had even if the threat is real, though. The tradeoff between travel security and convenience is an enormous drag on productivity (not to mention a cost for airports and airlines). The new rules may sidestep that debate. If an electronics ban applies solely to Gulf carriers, exempting domestic airlines, then it’s pretty plainly a protectionist measure, of the kind that Trump has explicitly promised to deliver for U.S. airlines.
The risk, of course, is that Gulf states could respond in kind—meaning that no one gets to binge on Netflix on international flights. Trade battles have a way of escalating quickly. After the European Union restricted hormone-treated beef from America in 1999, the Clinton administration retaliated with a 100 percent tariff on Roquefort from France. The Bush administration escalated the conflict—totally arbitrarily!—with a 300 percent duty on Roquefort in 2003. The ensuing cheese war lasted nearly through the Obama administration.
Depriving Americans of imported fromage is one thing; taking screens away from their toddlers could represent a whole other degree of inconvenience. Whether or not the Trump administration is pushing protectionist trade policies under the guise of national security, it seems likely that international flights are going to feel a whole hell of a lot longer.