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Laptop ban: protection or protectionism?

Terry smiling headOfficially, the airline laptop ban is a new measure against terrorist threats to use electronic devices to blow up planes. There is, however, a growing suspicion that it might be less concerned with protection, and more about protectionism.

The US Department of Homeland Security has justified its order by reference to an attempt last year to bring down an airliner in Somalia using a laptop.

Inbound flights to the US from eight mainly muslim countries in north Africa and the Middle East will face restrictions. Britain quickly followed suit, applying its own ban.

Business and holiday travellers alike were throwing up their hands in despair. No longer will they be able to work or entertain the kids during some very long trips from these destinations.

Unless, of course, they opt for those airlines not included in the ban. There is some confusion about who exactly is affected and, usefully, who benefits. Needless to say that America’s big three carriers—Delta, United, and American—stand to gain from the ruling.

It has been noted in Washington media circles that they have expressed their frustration that a number of airlines operating in the Middle East —specifically Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways—receive government subsidies. They have also expanded their operations to big US cities such as Chicago.

Donald Trump has promised to support the American airline industry through tax relief and deregulation. It is not difficult to understand why some observers of the new president’s policy pronouncements are suspecting that his offer extends beyond what he has publicly declared.

International business-class travel is a huge earner for the airlines, so a friendly US administration providing some protection would ease their competition worries.

The notion that the ban may be based on more than protecting citizens from bomb threats has been raised in the Washington Post and is now being noticed here. The ruling seemingly applies only to non-US carriers, several of which have enjoyed big subsidies from their governments.

However, it was unclear in Washington’s guidance whether the ban would be extended to US and other carriers, and this is where it gets complicated. British Airways, for instance, operates American Airlines flights from Istanbul (in banned Turkey) to New York. Similar alliances mean it is not so simple to work out who falls foul of the order.

Britain’s decision to impose its own ban on inbound flights – including British Airways and EasyJet – from six countries also confuses the picture and weakens the conspiracy theory surrounding President Trump’s support for US carriers.

The Islamic State group is said to have been working on ways to smuggle explosives on to planes by hiding them in electronics, according to what one US broadcaster claimed was a “substantiated” and “credible” source.

Republican Peter King also told the New York Times he was forewarned about the ban and that it was “based on intelligence reports that are fairly recent. Intelligence of something possibly planned.”

Mr Trump may have pledged support for the airlines, but he also pledged to obliterate terrorism. The extension to an earlier ban would therefore be in line with that promise.

Those affected will not take kindly to seeing their business eroded. They will point out that determined terrorists have plenty of airlines to choose from.

An immediate concern will be a tit-for-tat retaliation from the Middle East on American and British exports.

The US administration will, of course, argue that the ban has nothing to do with protectionism.

Assuming that is the case the effect of the ban will be much the same and the American airline industry won’t be complaining if it picks up the extra business.


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