Puzzling over the technology ban on some air carriers

The United States’ ban on certain — but not all — electronic devices on flights from some — but not all — countries has many security analysts and aviation safety experts scratching their heads. U.S. officials say the restrictions were prompted by growing concerns that Al Qaeda’s Yemen franchise (AQAP) and other terrorists are trying to smuggle bombs in laptops and other electronic devices larger than phones.

Terrorists can easily circumvent the ban by flying from, oh, I dunno, any country except the eight named in the new policy: Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. (The ban actually applies to only 10 airports in the eight countries.)

Also, if the threat is real, why allow the devices to be stowed in the cargo hold?, counterterrorism expert David Gomez said to Business Insider. “That seems counterproductive.”

The restrictions might not be about security, suggest Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman, two international relations professors in Washington, D.C.

The Trump administration might be covertly retaliating against the Gulf airlines for receiving large subsidies from their governments, they say.

U.S. airlines have long complained that the subsidies give Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways unfair advantages. More than a month before the electronics ban was announced, the CEOs of the three biggest U.S. carriers — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines — pressed the Trump administration to crack down on the massive subsidies.

Airlines have greater leeway to take public subsidies, so the U.S. cannot take the issue to the World Trade Organization. The U.S. could change its Open Skies agreements with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to limit the Gulf carriers ability to fly to American cities.

Or the U.S. could restrict electronic devices used by travelers on flights from Qatar and the U.A.E. That imposes a huge inconvenience on Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways passengers.

It could be an example of the U.S. “weaponizing interdependence” by using the Gulf carriers’ need for access to major American airports against them, Farrell and Newman say in their column Tuesday on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

The Gulf carriers have bought hundreds of Boeing jetliners, so there is an incentive for the U.S. to avoid publicly taking them on.

At the same time, the Trump administration has not shown much interest in such discrete action. It has, though, rushed new policy into place without thoroughly vetting it, e.g. the visa ban.

So, the electronics ban could be another example of slipshod policy.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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