The head of the Arab Air Carriers Organization (AACO) is urging ICAO to seek clarification on the nature of the threat that prompted the US and UK ban on electronics in the cabin.

The new security rules, implemented in March with little notice or explanation given to the airlines and airports affected, apply mostly to Arab airports and countries. In all cases, passengers are prohibited from including electronics larger than smartphones in their carry-on bags; electronics such as laptops, e-books and tablets must be placed in checked bags.

However, the targets of the US and UK rules differ. The US targets certain airports, including Abu Dhabi International, Dubai International and Doha Hamad International—respective home hubs of Etihad Airways, Emirates Airline and Qatar Airways. The UK’s ban list applies to countries, specifically Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey, and all flights from those countries to the UK.

Because the UAE and Qatar are not on the UK list, the major Gulf carriers are not affected by the UK ban, but must comply with the new rules on flights to the US.

US and UK officials have given no explanation as to why their threat intelligence has resulted in different ban lists. Nor will they explain specifically what prompted the additional security rules now, or why electronic items that might contain explosives are considered to be safer in the cargo hold than in the cabin. No other countries have implemented new rules.

AACO secretary general Abdul Wahab Teffaha has reached out to ICAO, urging it to gather the relevant states to develop measure that “will help restore normalcy to the transport process while simultaneously shielding air transport from emerging threats.”

Teffaha emphasized that AACO’s main commitment continued to be “for safe and secure travel and we believe that governments have the right to invoke measures when a clear security threat arises.”

But he added, “We strongly believe that governments need to be aware of the threat and guidelines need to be developed and put in place in order to avoid the proliferation of the threat to locations not yet identified and to avoid inconvenience to passengers and bring back normalcy to the air transport process.”

Teffaha urged ICAO to seek clarification and guidance from the US and UK authorities on the nature of the threat that prompted the ban and to involve all the authorities concerned. AACO is also seeking, through ICAO, that the US and UK clarify “the measures that the countries which are not affected by the ban are taking so that the countries affected by it can implement and mitigate the new threat.”

The US ban, in particular, is causing controversy because it is not being uniformly applied—as is the case with other security measures, such as the limit on quantities of liquids and gels that can be taken onboard in carry-on—and it does not affect any US airport or carrier. The three US majors—American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, along with some congressional and labor supporters—have renewed a campaign this year against the US expansion of the major Gulf carriers. 

“We understand that there are many questions that can be raised about the coherence of how this ban was introduced differently by the invoking states, but it’s not up to AACO to question that coherence; it’s up to the governments and their global organization, ICAO, to address them and see how this new perceived threat can be mitigated,” Teffaha said.

IATA director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac has urged the US and UK governments to “urgently find alternatives,” saying it was difficult to understand their effectiveness and they create severe commercial distortions.

Asian carriers that partner with the Gulf carriers are also being affected because they have to comply with the electronics carry-on ban at the point of origin if a passenger is connecting on an affected route. Association of Asia Pacific Carriers Association director general Andrew Herdman told ATW last week, “This is a global industry and security has to be focused on the industry as a whole. The new UK and US security rules are having a cascading effect because of the traffic that flows through the affected airports and on [Asian carrier] partner airlines that are affected.” He said there seemed to be no logic to the new rules.

Karen Walker