Asia’s airlines divided on impact of expanded US laptop ban

Airline representatives at an annual industry meeting in Mexico offer a range of predictions on how such a ban would affect passengers and carriers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 10:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 11:16pm

A plan to expand a US ban on electronic devices on international flights has divided Asia’s major airlines, as they mull ways to ensure increased security does not deter passengers from flying.

At the annual summit of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in Cancun, Mexico, some of Asia’s major carriers made a range of predictions on how Washington’s intention to enforce a worldwide ban on devices on planes to the United States would play out.

Rupert Hogg, Cathay Pacific Airways’ new chief executive officer, said the airline would look at options with aviation and airport authorities to mitigate and manage the impact of a ban coming into force.

Speaking on the sidelines of the annual summit in the coastal resort city, he said “airlines like Cathay Pacific had a view that security was best preserved through a consultative process between airlines, regulators and governments”.

Laptop ban could cost US$3.3 billion a year, airline industry says as it fights back with security countermeasures

He added: “It is also a question of learning from the geographical areas which already have a ban in place.”

Hogg, attending his first IATA summit, acknowledged the risk that an expanded US electronics ban could affect travel demand. IATA officials said current US restrictions on flights from the Middle East had taken a toll on the industry as soon as the ban was enforced in April.

But he said a worldwide ban was not a foregone conclusion.

“It isn’t a certainty that such a ban would eventuate, but if it did, there are lots of airlines and airports that would be affected ... including many in Asia.”

Giving an indication of how Hong Kong would move forward if a ban came into force, the city’s largest airline said it would work with the authorities on mitigation measures at Hong Kong International Airport.

IATA calculates that a worldwide ban would cost the industry US$3.3 billion annually. The restrictions would hit 110 million passengers and 786,000 flights a year.

Japan Airlines however is an outlier. The company’s chairman said his focus was on “securing the security and safety” of aircraft and passengers, and if that meant disrupting passenger convenience for short-term security gains, he believed the cautious stance was the correct one.

To that end, chairman Masaru Onishi said the ban should come first and airlines should then collectively work to provide a “safe space” for passengers before reintroducing electronic devices safely into aircraft cabins.

Anything but a ban: airlines meet in bid to keep laptops in cabins

“It is said that if you ban something, you will have fewer and fewer customers, but I think that kind of thinking is putting the cart before the horse,” he said.

The chairman added: “First of all we have to take action to secure safety, and [then] provide a safe space where passengers can enjoy the flight, utilising the electronic devices comfortably ... and that is where we can utilise our wisdom.”

He said Japan Airlines’ position differed to that of other airlines, and the question of how to face up to a ban had sparked a “debate” at the summit.

Malaysia Airlines chief executive Peter Bellew provided a dire assessment. In his view, efforts to protect passengers from terrorism had been compromised by the risk of combustion of electronic devices stored in the cargo compartment of an aircraft.

After inviting his airline’s airport partners to discuss the matter in recent weeks, “it seems very evident to me, and it’s my opinion, I do believe from my analysis that it will not be an option to travel with your electronics at all”.

The industry is pushing back against the potential worldwide ban by arguing that bomb-detection technology, sniffer dogs and an array of other security screening options would be better than an outright ban.