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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Regional airlines expect electronics ban to be lifted

Emirates, Turkish Airlines and Saudia expect the electronics ban to be lifted from their US-bound flights

ABU DHABI // Regional airlines expect the ban on passengers carrying laptops and other devices on US-bound flights to be lifted within the coming months.

Saudi Arabian Airlines, Saudia, said on Tuesday it estimates the ban to be lifted by July 19 as it works with the country’s civil aviation authority to implement new security measures for such flights.

Emirates also said it was working to implement measures to lift the ban after enhanced security measures were brought in at Abu Dhabi International Airport on Sunday, allowing passengers of Etihad Airways to travel with their electronics.

The United States said it lifted the ban after the airline had put in place required tighter security measures.

On Monday, Turkish Airlines said it also expected it to be lifted on flights on July 5.

The ban came into force in March for 10 airports in eight countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey. The US said the move aimed at addressing fears that bombs could be concealed in electronic devices taken on board.

Airlines were severely impacted, according to aviation experts, as they lost both passengers and revenue. “Not everyone is willing to part ways with a device in a checked piece of baggage that then ends up being thrown around by ramp agents and damaging their property,” said Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at StrategicAero Research in the United Kingdom. “Emirates felt the hit hard and even cut flights to the US, so if the ban is removed, they can restart more flights as passengers and demand starts to spike upwards.”

He said Arab airlines were known for their “amazing service and quality” which would attract further travellers once the ban is removed and in turn put pressure on US airlines as well. “The loss of passengers hurt income,” Mr Ahmad said. “With no device ban, passengers can fly with their laptops in the cabin and not have to worry about it being damaged. That will spur demand back on flights from the GCC to the US and in turn generate high yield and additional revenue. This is why getting the ban overturned is vital.”

The impact has been primarily economic. "In the current economic climate with reduced load factors and lower yields any factor affecting the number of business class - i.e the higher yield passenger revenues - has to be detrimental to the perception of the airlines product and the package they promote," said Captain Darren Straker, former head of air accident investigation at the GCAA and an independent investigator at Straker System Safety. "A corollary affect was the reduction of the number of flights to the US, which has secondary cost factors to consider, in particular the ground handling, catering and service industry considerations at the US destination."

He said the airlines' image was the product which has been detrimental in that respect. "However, this was a US decision based on a risk which in many respects was not clearly stated and the mitigation strategy of loading the laptops into the class C cargo compartment was completely counter factual to all of the accepted ICAO and IATA risk factors for possible on-board lithium-ion battery fires," Capt Straker said. "These fires cannot be extinguished by the aircraft cargo fire system and the fire will be uncontained and could be catastrophic based on the Federal Aviation Administration lithium battery fire testing conducted in 2011."

He called the ban an economic factor. "It is commercially prohibitive and if the service is not available, customers will find alternatives, particularly the high yield business class passengers who travel business to work, have access to on-board WiFi and to 'stay connected' which is a byword now for top end airline business class products," he added. "If the laptop ban is lifted then it is an immediate economic driver and the service or package offered by the airlines can be re-established. Eventually the risk factors will mitigate the screening process."

Much of the new security measures will depend on the measures the US insists upon, according to Mr Ahmad. “This could be new scanning methods and machines as well as more intrusive searches prior to boarding,” he said. “Regardless, it’s clear that the UAE is eager to display both compliance and conformity so that Emirates can follow Etihad in allowing passengers to carry their devices into the cabin in complete safety and security.”

Capt Straker said the screening will be more specific than it currently is. "It will take longer, perhaps passengers will have to demonstrate the devices are actually functional by turning them on," he said. "The airport scanners can be upgraded to include an enhanced software detection algorithm. It will involve more detailed screening of individual items. Once again, this is counter-intuitive to the IT based 'Smart Screening' philosophy rolled out across the UAE recently."

He said the IATA have been actively involved in a resolution to this issue, basing their concern on the fact that the ban was not specifically identified by a specific risk. "[It] could be misinterpreted as a commercial maneuver to gain valuable market leverage and was not consistent with the accepted and recognised risks," he added

Others said the US is reportedly inspecting and auditing airports. “I heard the US have now established a criteria for airports,” said Ismail Al Balooshi, assistant director general aviation safety affairs at the GCAA. “They started in Abu Dhabi and maybe this week or early next week, they’re going to look at Dubai Airport and at the airlines’ and airports’ additional measures.”

He said lifting the ban would be beneficial for airlines. “Emirates said this has affected their flights,” he added. “They shrank their operation so this will bring some life back to their business.”