Laptop ban may force business travelers to skip Middle East airports

Fast-growing Middle Eastern airlines have been luring business travelers away from carriers in the U.S., Europe and Asia for years. But they may find the seats in the front of the plane going unfilled after the U.S. and U.K. banned large electronics in the cabin on some flights from the region. Their European rivals appear best placed to capitalize on the needs of higher paying passengers who refuse to be separated from their devices.

By Wednesday 22 March,  Qatar Airways flights from Doha to the U.S. were already operating under the new restrictions, which U.S. and U.K. authorities say are based on concerns that devices larger than a smartphone could carry explosives. Affected airlines have until Saturday morning to abide by the new rules.

Wall Street analysts are already warning that business travelers may change who they fly with if they can’t get work done on their laptops or tablets.

Long flights from the Middle East and Africa back to the U.S. offer business travelers invaluable time that they can often use to toil away uninterrupted by phone calls or personal commitments.

“Hubs that don’t impede the productivity of long-haul business travelers (such as Frankfurt, Paris, and so forth) could logically be expected to” charge a premium ticket price “at the expense of the Middle East,” wrote JPMorgan airline analyst Jamie Baker.

Baker said in a research note Wednesday that European airlines are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of the electronics ban. Germany and France, home to global carriers Lufthansa and Air France, have not matched the restrictions put in place by the U.S. and the U.K.

He also pointed to “the tech-heavy corridor between the U.S. and India” as one where significant numbers of business travelers could choose to avoid transfers at Middle East airports.

But Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths said he thinks only “a very tiny proportion” of travelers will change airlines.

“I don’t think it will have a big impact on numbers,” he told local radio, as long as “we are very, very diligent in both communicating to people exactly what the restrictions are and actually have an efficient process to deal with the situation.”

Aviation information provider Flightglobal estimates the nine affected airlines under the U.S. ban have about 18,000 seats each day flying from their Middle East and North African hubs directly to the U.S. on 50 routes.

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