The Department of Homeland Security announced an unprecedented new restriction on travelers from 10 airports in eight Muslim-majority countries on Tuesday.
The DHS restriction states “that all personal electronic devices larger than a cell phone or smart phone be placed in checked baggage at 10 airports where flights are departing for the United States.”
It’s a Muslim laptop ban.
The 10 airports are in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
American-based airlines do not fly directly to the United States from these airports, so these restrictions will not apply to them. The impact of this move will instead fall on nine airlines, including Gulf-based carriers that U.S. airlines have been asking President Trump to punish since the day after his election.
The U.S. carriers have long complained that Gulf carriers such as Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways are unfairly subsidized by their national governments.
Executives at Delta Airlines, United Airlines, and American Airlines met with Trump in early February. The day before the meeting, a group representing these American airlines, called the Partnership for Open & Fair Skies, distributed a slick video using Trump’s own words to argue against the subsidies.
With this new travel impediment, Trump may be throwing these executives a bone. The new restrictions appear to be targeting airports that serve as flight “hubs” for these airlines — such as Dubai International, which is the hub of Emirates. Airlines use these hub airports to transfer passengers between flights, delivering significant savings.
California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, quickly rose to the defense of Trump’s DHS on Tuesday, calling the restrictions both “necessary and proportional to the threat”:
Ranking House Intel Dem Schiff backs new electronics ban on US-bound flights from 8 Muslim-maj countries - critics say measure is arbitrary pic.twitter.com/3zPwehf2ZW— Jessica Schulberg (@jessicaschulb) March 21, 2017
In 2015, Schiff was one of 262 Members of the House who signed a letter protesting subsidies for the Gulf airlines. The letter is featured on the website of the Partnership for Open & Fair Skies.
Whatever the motivation, the security justifications are unclear at best. The Guardian interviewed a number of top technologists about the new policy on Tuesday, and they were puzzled. “If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold,” Nicholas Weaver, who is a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute, told the paper.
“From a technological perspective, nothing has changed between the last dozen years and today. That is, there are no new technological breakthroughs that make this threat any more serious today,” Bruce Schneier, a top technologist at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, told the Guardian. “And there is certainly nothing technological that would limit this newfound threat to a handful of Middle Eastern airlines.”
The United Kingdom enacted similar restrictions hours after the United States, but with two puzzling differences. The U.K. ban includes 14 airlines, including six based in the U.K. And it does not include airports in Qatar or the UAE — which are the epicenter of the subsidies dispute. Canada is reportedly weighing its own restrictions.
For its part, Emirates responded by inviting customers to sample its in-flight entertainment in lieu of tablets and laptops — by repurposing an old advertisement featuring Jennifer Anniston:
Let us entertain you. pic.twitter.com/FKqayqUdQ7— Emirates airline (@emirates) March 21, 2017