We’ve been closely following the in-flight electronics ban and its likely impact on the Middle East’s biggest airlines. Our biggest concern? That Cabin Crew recruitment for Emirates, Etihad Airways and even Qatar Airways might be affected. And it isn’t looking good. We’ve looked at what the repercussions will be and how the ME3 can respond.
Here’s what we know so far. The United States has issued an ultimatum to be met by Saturday – Direct flights from the UAE and Qatar (as well as five other countries) to the U.S. will have tough new security measures imposed on them. Passengers will not be allowed any electronic items in the cabin except smartphones and medical devices.
When the ban was announced Tuesday it was met with immediate consternation and even disbelief from some quarters. But that’s not to say that there wasn’t good reason behind some elements of the directive.
Decision made on “evaluated intelligence”
Last year a terrorist armed with a bomb hidden in a laptop computer tried to blow up a Daallo Airways plane as it was taking off from Mogadishu airport. Although a hole was blown in the side of the aircraft, the pilot managed to safely land the plane.
Aviation has always been a popular target for terrorists. And recent ‘chatter’ has raised fears that terrorists are trying to find ever more inventive ways to smuggle bombs onto planes. Authorities had already been taking steps to prevent this type of attack. For over a year, passengers on U.S. bound flights have had to prove they can power on all their electronic devices.
Although security agencies are saying that the new measures aren’t related to any specific intelligence there’s clearly something afoot. So much so that the UK has introduced a similar ban. But tellingly, the UAE and Qatar aren’t included in the UK’s version.
Designed to deliberately harm Gulf carriers?
Airport security at Dubai International, Abu Dhabi International and Hamad International matches that of some of the best in the world. It’s raised fears of backdoor protectionism by U.S. authorities in favour of American air carriers.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Emirates and Etihad Airways are already reeling from massive falls in their profit and plummeting passenger figures. Both airlines have expressed their displeasure with the security ban but along with Qatar Airways, they’ve agreed to implement it.
Emirates initially shot back with a witty reworking of a television commercial featuring Jennifer Aniston. The airline tried to allay passengers fears and promised to keep everyone entertained on lengthy flights to the United States. And besides, over 90% of passengers only accessed onboard WiFi using their mobile phones claimed Emirates.
Etihad reworked President Trump’s election slogan in their response, “Make flying great again.” The carrier promised gourmet meals, lie-flat beds and endless entertainment options to keep their guests amused.
The videos are fun and full of humour but doubts are growing. Will business travellers really agree to give up their laptops and tablets on such long flights? Whether it be data protection concerns, strict company policies, fear of theft or simply the need to get work done – travellers do not want to part with their devices.
It’s widely agreed the ban will affect business travellers the most – the ones paying for the most expensive seats on the plane. Those are the seats that generate the most of any airline’s profit. These business travellers might love flying with Emirates, Etihad or Qatar but their loyalty could be seriously tested.
Potential for massive damage to Gulf economy
Concerns are being raised that valuable transfer passengers, from India, China and elsewhere will reroute via Europe. The damage to the Gulf economy could be enormous. A US-based aviation analyst has been quoted as saying that Gulf carriers could see lose 15%-25% of premium passengers.
Ernest Arvai, chief executive of The Arvai Group said: “The move (the electronic devices ban) would effectively result in the region’s airlines losing passengers to other airlines, hitting the premium classes hardest, where essential revenue is generated,”
Along with Turkish Airlines, Emirates has moved to lessen the disruption to passengers. Both airlines will allow passengers to keep their devices right up until they get to the gate. At that point, the device will be taken away and safely stored in the hold. Passengers will have their devices returned to them when they arrive at their U.S. destination.
However, both Qatar Airways and Etihad have asked passengers to check-in any electronic devices into their checked luggage at their point of origin. That could mean two flights and a layover in Doha or Abu Dhabi without access to their devices.
The Effect on Cabin Crew Recruitment
So how is this likely to affect Cabin Crew recruitment? U.S. destinations have been a really important market for all three Gulf carriers. Emirates now has 12 U.S. destinations in its route network. Qatar presently serves 11 destinations in the United States and will add a 12th next year. Meanwhile, Etihad Airways so far serves six cities in the USA.
Any drop in demand in this important market will have a knock-on affect on Cabin Crew recruitment. How bad that effect is, we will have to wait and see. In a few weeks time we’ll know how many business travellers are cancelling or rebooking tickets and what, if any, the drop in passenger numbers is.
The Gulf airlines do have some options available to them. Emirates already has two ‘fifth-freedom’ flights that serve the United States. One from Athens, the other from Milan. Neither of these services will be hit by the new measures.
Another option would be to add ‘security stops‘ in a European country. Passengers would simply disembark, go through the security screening process again, reboard and continue their journey. And at all times be in possession of their electronic devices.
Whatever the Gulf carriers choose to do, it’s fairly inevitable that airfares will drop to entice travellers back through the UAE and Qatar. This could ultimately delay the resumption of Cabin Crew recruitment with Etihad and Emirates. For Qatar Airways, Cabin Crew recruitment is still going strong. Whether this move by the Trump administration slows them down isn’t yet known.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.