Electronics Ban About Protecting US Business, Not Boosting Security

Claiming the goal is security, President Donald Trump is targeting Gulf airlines with his new electronics ban — but economists believe this move is suspicious.

Donald TrumpPresident Donald Trump and his administration launched new rules that bar passengers traveling to the United States from 10 airports from carrying laptops, tablets, or any communication device larger than a smartphone while in the cabin of the plane. This move, the administration contended, was meant to help keep America safe. Now, we know that things aren't as they seem.

The ban targets eight Muslim-majority countries: Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. But they also target specific airlines, so if you're flying on Egypt Air, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Kuwait Airways, Qatar Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, or Turkish Airlines, The Washington Post reports, you won't be allowed to carry your electronics.

Despite the administration's claims regarding the need for this ban by saying they have intelligence that proves terrorists are still targeting flights headed to the United States, Demitri Sevastopulo and Robert Wright at the Financial Times say that there isn't an official explanation that demonstrates that such devices are safer in the baggage hold.

Washington Post sources claim that officials are worried Syrian terrorists may be able to build bombs inside electronic devices that are hard to detect. If they have this capacity, wouldn't they also be able to have these bombs detonate while the devices are placed away from passengers, tucked in the baggage hold? Banning them from being in the cabin won't make a difference.

Instead of security as the ban's main justification, there might be an alternative explanation.

For instance, take three of the targeted airlines: Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Etihad Airways. In the past, they have been accused of being heavily subsidized by their countries' governments. To many United States competitors, this reality gave such companies unfair advantages, allowing them to offer better quality services without charging much more for their tickets. And for months, these airlines showed concerns that under Trump, they could be the target of extra scrutiny. Perhaps this is the way the administration found to retaliate.

By barring passengers from using their large electronics on board these airlines, people who are much more likely to pay business or first-class fares so they may work while on the plane may choose to fly using another company. As a result, these firms could then lose some of their most lucrative regulars to U.S. airlines.

By attacking Gulf airlines and “hub” airports, the new ban also targets airports that are at “the core of [the airlines'] business models,” The Washington Post suggests. That's because the new directives not only affect direct flights to the United States, but they also impact flights that are transferring passengers from other destinations.

With this, the authors continue, the United States is “weaponizing interdependence” by “leveraging its control over access to U.S. airports, which are central 'nodes' in the global network of air travel between different destinations.” And with this newly-seized control, the government is “[attacking] the key vulnerabilities of other networked actors, by going after the central nodes in their networks (the hub airports) and potentially severely damaging them.”

Sounds like unfair competition to us.

Unfortunately for targeted Gulf airlines, there's little they can do legally to stop the ban. Nevertheless, the media can still talk about it and perhaps pressure the administration to come clean on its motives for passing this new electronics ban. It might not work, but it might at least show them that we know exactly what they are all about: protectionism.

Ask any economist and he or she will tell you that protectionism as a U.S. policy would only be damaging to America.

Even if U.S. airlines lose money by having to compete with Gulf companies, the greater the number of businesses competing for customers, the lower the cost flights will be to the final consumer.

If costs are lowered, then U.S. tourism becomes suddenly more appealing to the foreigner traveler. 

By allowing Gulf airlines to compete with domestic ones, we also allow the tourism industry to flourish, boosting American business and making our economy stronger. 

Isn't that what a well-meaning president really wants to see taking place?

Banner and thumbnail credit: Reuters, Eduardo Munoz

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