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in Air Transport / Features

Ban on the run

Posted 11 October 2017 · Add Comment

America's ill-conceived laptop ban has been replaced by new, more robust mechanisms for protecting passengers. Martin Rivers talked to Abdul Wahab Teffaha, secretary general of the Arab Air Carriers' Organisation, about the need for a standardised global approach to security.

After months of threatening to roll out its laptop ban globally, the US Department of Homeland Security in June unveiled a raft of new security measures aimed at fighting terrorism without further inconveniencing passengers.
America’s new approach obliges foreign airports to adopt more stringent measures in relation to explosive-trace detection, canine security and vetting of airport personnel.
Any gateways that fail to comply will be prohibited from allowing large electronic devices in the passenger cabins of flights to the US – echoing the measures placed on seven Arab countries plus Turkey in March.
At the time of writing, six of those affected countries – the UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan – have been lifted from the ban, which was hastily rolled out after intelligence agencies uncovered a possible Daesh plot to smuggle bombs in the battery compartments of laptops.
Saudi Arabia and Morocco were also expecting an imminent reprieve.
The newly standardised policy should dampen the cries of protectionism and anti-Arab bias that abounded in the aftermath of the ban. Critics were quick to note that the eight affected countries provided the only nonstop links to America from the Arab world and Turkey, and that none of them featured in the route maps of US carriers. This skewed approach led many to question whether the ban was genuinely motivated by security concerns.
Even the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the impartial trade group representing global airlines, poured scorn on the measure, describing it as “not acceptable” and warning of clear “commercial distortions” against the affected airlines.
Another trade group, the Arab Air Carriers’ Organisation (AACO), which represents airlines from the MENA region, saw its members disproportionately affected by the ban. But secretary general, Abdul Wahab Teffaha, chose his words carefully when weighing in on the matter. Speaking in Bangkok, shortly before the new measures were announced, he called for constructive dialogue – not combative accusations – in pursuit of a workable solution.
“I have to take it for granted as a matter of factuality that these two governments have identified certain [security] threats, and that those threats prompted the ban,” the AACO chief said, referring to parallel but different restrictions imposed by the UK Government.
“This I have to take at face value, because we have no other information to prove otherwise. However, I believe there are alternative ways of dealing properly with the ban. We know, for example, there is a difference between what [airports] the UK and the US identified [as posing a security risk]. Why? When you have differences identifying the same threat and doing the same thing [to mitigate it] but [applying] to different countries, that makes me think, ‘What kind of criteria were used in order to justify the ban in the first place?’”
Close intelligence sharing has, historically, seen the US and the UK act in unison over air security measures; for example, by limiting the carriage of liquids in 2006 after the disruption of an Al Qaeda plot targeting transatlantic flights.
Different circumstances partly explained the divergent policies adopted in March: the UK applied its ban to Lebanon and Tunisia because it had existing nonstop flights to those countries, whereas the US did not. However, London’s decision to exempt the UAE, Qatar, Morocco and Kuwait was harder to understand.
Teffaha refused to speculate as to why the US and the UK made contradictory threat assessments – particularly in relation to America’s inclusion of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, the Gulf’s three largest hubs. Pre-empting the eventual resolution of the crisis, his focus was instead on unifying policy between all nations to protect all global passengers – not just those travelling on certain flights from the MENA region.
“Since there is no agreement between the two countries which actually invoked the ban, then they have to sit together at least to see what is the threat and where is it coming from. That’s step number one,” he explained.
“Step number two” was closing the gaping holes in the policy at a global level; holes that – if the intelligence is accurate – self-evidently left the majority of travellers exposed to airborne terror attacks.
“The ban now is from certain countries, but nothing would prevent a terrorist from going through a third country that is not on the list,” Teffaha noted, echoing widespread criticism by security experts. “Our concern is to have maximum security, maximum safety. Leaving third countries without any safeguards puts a question mark on how the ban is sufficient [in its original form].”
He insisted that passengers would remain at risk – both on flights outside of the US and on connecting flights to the US via a third country – until America issued recommendations for corrective measures to the affected nations. (Emirates Airline boss, Tim Clark, reiterated the call for guidance when he met the heads of the US Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security in May – one month before the new measures were announced.)
Teffaha said: “There are 180 other countries which were not identified [by either government]. What are these 180 countries doing that the 10 [banned] countries are not doing?
“The right thing to do is to provide guidance to the governments of the world to mitigate this threat. It may not happen to the US, not to the UK because of their bans – but it may happen to France, it may happen to other countries. They don’t have to tell us anything about the [specific nature of the] threat. Just tell the world what it needs to do to mitigate this threat, rather than stepping back and letting the threat, God forbid, proliferate to other places.”
AACO’s frustration at the lack of actionable information is, unfortunately, not a new theme for the organisation.
Five of the group’s 33 airline members are currently banned from flying to Europe due to their inclusion in the European Union’s air safety list – better known as the blacklist. The affected members are Libya’s Afriqiyah Airways and Libyan Airlines; Sudan’s Badr Airlines and Sudan Airways; and Iraqi Airways.
The Sudanese members are hamstrung by sanctions on their government and would find it difficult to serve Europe even without being blacklisted. But the Iraqi and Libyan airlines are banned solely because of perceived shortcomings in their regulatory compliance – shortcomings for which Europe is providing no corrective support. This inaction, according to Teffaha, is another example of regressive policymaking that isolates under-performers instead of helping them lift their game.
“We believe it’s not helpful, and we believe that instead of being passive – identifying some things and not doing anything about it – the EU has to be proactive,” he said. “They have to teach those lessons.
“Let’s not forget Iraq has been living in a constant state of war for decades now. In order to rebuild a safe, secure and credible aviation industry they need to be taught by somebody how to do things. This is [an issue] ethically speaking, otherwise it is as if you are saying, ‘I don’t want Europeans to be harmed, but it’s fine for others to be harmed’. That doesn’t make sense.”
Just as AACO regards the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) – not the US – as the highest authority on security matters, so it sees the UN body – not the EU – as the standard-bearer for safety regulation. “The right way to do it is [embodied by] ICAO’s slogan: Leave no country behind,” Teffaha concluded.
“I can understand that some countries may have higher levels in order to assert the safety of operations at certain airports or certain airlines. That’s fine. But those levels need to be transmitted. And if you find somebody that is not meeting your standards, you should go and tell them what they need to do.”
 

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