Etihad, Emirates, Turkish Airlines Offer Solutions for Electronics-Deprived Passengers

Middle Eastern airlines that have built reputations based on their high levels of service are scrambling to ease the inconveniences imposed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security restrictions on electronic devices. Etihad Airways, based in Abu Dhabi, notified all first- and business-class passengers yesterday that as of April 2, the carrier will provide free WiFi and iPads for the duration of all U.S.-bound flights. WiFi vouchers will be distributed by the cabin crew onboard, and iPads will be available for any premium passengers who need them. Power and USB sockets are available at every premium seat on Etihad.

The new electronics restrictions, which went into effect March 25, require that passengers flying directly to the U.S. from 10 affected airports in the Middle East and North Africa must place all electronics in checked luggage. The only exceptions are mobile phones, smartphones and medical devices. No U.S. airlines are affected by the measure, nor do the restrictions apply to Middle East-originating flights that connect in Europe en route to the U.S.

On March 23, Dubai-based Emirates introduced laptop- and tablet-handling services for passengers affected by the restrictions. The free service allows passengers to use their devices until just before boarding, at which time they can hand the devices to security staff at the gate. Staff members will carefully pack the electronics into boxes, load them into the aircraft hold and return them upon reaching the U.S. Passengers are required to notify security agents that they have such devices in their carry-on luggage prior to screening.

Etihad provides a similar service, although the airline "encourages" passengers to pack electronics in checked luggage. Items that are not packed, however, will be placed in padded envelopes, securely taken to the luggage hold and returned to passengers upon arrival stateside.

Similarly, Turkish Airlines is allowing its passengers to use electronic devices until boarding, at which point the restricted electronics can be given to airline staff who will tag them and transport them securely, returning them at the destination. As of March 31, passengers who take advantage of that service will be entitled to free in-flight WiFi. (Passengers who check their electronics in their luggage, however, will not get that perk.)

Meanwhile, the head of the International Air Transport Association slammed the electronics restrictions, calling on governments to quickly find alternative approaches. (The U.K. has initiated similar restrictions, but they do not apply to all of the same carriers and airports as the U.S. measures.)

"The current measures are not an acceptable long-term solution to whatever threat they are trying to mitigate," said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA director general and CEO, during a speech to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations. "Even in the short term it is difficult to understand their effectiveness. And the commercial distortions they create are severe."

Inconsistencies in the restrictions and poor communication, de Juniac noted, could undermine confidence in the security of the global aviation industry. "With the measures now in place, our passengers and member airlines are asking valid questions," he said. "Why don't the U.S. and the U.K. have a common list of airports? How can laptops be secure in the cabin on some flights and not others, including flights departing from the same airport? And surely there must be a way to screen electronic equipment effectively? The current situation is not acceptable and will not maintain the all-important confidence of the industry or of travelers. We must find a better way. And governments must act quickly."

Other airlines affected by the U.S. restrictions include EgyptAir, Kuwait Airways, Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian and  Saudia. As of press time, none had responded regarding any accommodations being made for affected travelers.