Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 October 2019

Breathe easily, the electronics ban is in our interests

Deborah Lindsay Williams suggests some ways we can entertain ourselves on long flights
Etihad is among the airlines affected by the ban. Kamran Jebreili / AP
Etihad is among the airlines affected by the ban. Kamran Jebreili / AP

The news has been full of the United States’ ban on personal electronics on direct flights from 10 airports in countries that include the UAE. It’s an announcement that sent airlines and passengers into a tizzy, as everyone scrambled to manage this sudden limitation.

The ban reveals the deeply autocratic nature of the Trump administration, which has decided that it knows what’s best for everyone. We may grumble, but let’s face it: we all know we need a digital detox, and this ban is Donald Trump’s way of ensuring that we all learn how to unplug.

Truly, this out-of-the-blue prohibition presents an opportunity. We can now put into practise all those articles we’ve been reading about “mindfulness” and “breath”. On that long-haul flight from Dubai to New York, instead of catching up on work email or planning for the incredibly important meeting waiting at the end of your flight, you can focus on your meditation.

Teach yourself to shut out the sounds of the yowling toddler who has clicked through all the available inflight entertainment before the plane has taken off and is now demanding snacks, the potty, a chance to run around. “Breathe,” you tell yourself, “breathe”.

Don’t you feel better? All that nice slow breathing has totally relaxed you. And if the breathing hasn’t helped yet, don’t worry: you’ve got about 14 more hours to practise.

Sometimes, when we’re away from the office, anxiety about work can kick in, but now, without your personal electronics, you can unwind with an inflight movie. The electronics ban means you now have time to watch those movies you didn’t want to pay to see in the theatres. Even better, given that the man in front of you has reclined to the utmost, you don’t need your reading glasses to see the screen, because the action is taking place essentially at the end of your nose. Added plus? The headphones help to cancel out the noise of the still furious toddler.

Granted, some people are saying that these restrictions on flights from the UAE in particular aren’t about a government-imposed digital detox, but are Mr Trump’s attempt to placate US airlines who have insisted that the Gulf carriers are getting unfair government subsidies (which the Gulf carriers deny).

These naysayers point out that on US carriers such as Delta, passengers can have all the electronics on board that they want, even on long-haul flights – which does seem a little odd. If personal electronics batteries can be weaponized, which is the stated reason for the ban, can’t they also be weaponized on US carriers? And on flights from, say, Brussels or Paris to the US, as well as from the UAE?

But surely the US government wouldn’t be so petty; surely this ban is intended as a restorative, even nostalgic action. Mr Trump’s actions will return us to the golden age of air travel, when people boarded the plane with nothing but a book and a packet of cigarettes. People made conversation with their seatmates and puffed away to pass the time. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before cigarettes are reintroduced as a travel aid.

The ban also means we can return to “real books”, as my children call them. Who needs a Kindle containing an entire library, plus several newspapers and magazines, when you can choose a single book for the entire flight? Focus, people, the ban is all about focus. I’m a pretty fast reader, so I’ll be carrying two books, but that means I’ll get a bit of a workout schlepping them in my on-flight bag. Clearly, Mr Trump not only shares my love of reading, but also wants to help me get fit.

Let’s not grumble about this ban, let's embrace it as a long-haul gift, enabling us to become calmer and more well-read. And for parents of unhappy toddlers, who are less sanguine about digital detox, I have two words of advice: sticker books. Lots of sticker books, whipped out at strategic intervals (like when everyone around you wants to sleep). Intersperse the stickers with lollipops and everyone will be happy.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi

Updated: March 29, 2017 04:00 AM