As I mentioned in a previous post, I was recently in the Persian Gulf, from which I returned on Emirates in business class. I’ll have a full trip report coming up, but I’ll be going a bit out of order with this post to discuss my experiences with how Emirates is handling the electronics ban. My hope is to be able to shed some light on the situation for people who might be traveling to the Middle East soon and are trying to make decisions about their travel.
In late March the current US administration announced an in-cabin ban on all electronics larger than a mobile phone on flights from ten airports in Muslim-predominant countries in the Middle East and North Africa. On flights from the following airports to the United States, electronics larger than a cell phone cannot be brought into the cabin and must be checked as luggage:
- Cairo International Airport, Cairo, Egypt
- Istanbul Ataturk Airport, Istanbul, Turkey
- Kuwait International Airport, Kuwait City, Kuwait
- Hamad International Airport, Doha, Qatar
- Mohammed V International Airport, Casablanca, Morocco
- Queen Alia International Airport, Amman, Jordan
- King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
- King Abdulaziz International Airport, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
- Dubal International Airport, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
- Abu Dhabi International Airport, United Arab Emirates
Since the ban was announced, there has been significant impact to the airports and carriers affected. Already suffering from low oil prices, the “superconnector” ME3 carriers (Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways) were hit particularly hard by the ban. Emirates, for instance, has reduced frequencies and downgauged aircraft on a number of US routes, and literally every single front-line staff member I spoke to, from check-in agents to flight attendants, remarked to me about how they’ve noticed a substantial reduction in passenger loads to the US. Meanwhile, Air India, which is not affected by the electronics ban, has claimed that their bookings to the US have doubled since the implementation of the policy.
Each carrier has developed its own way of coping with the ban. Several carriers, including Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, and Turkish, allow passengers to bring electronics past security and use them up until boarding, at which point they are collected and gate-checked. In addition, each of the ME3 carriers announced special provisions for premium (business/first class passengers): Emirates loans Microsoft Surface tablets for use in-flight (though this is subject to a 2-hour use limit), Etihad loans iPads and provides free in-flight wifi (the latter for premium passengers only), and Qatar loans out laptops and USB memory sticks.
For my return to the US, I flew Emirates business class from Dubai to New York. As I was spending the night in the lounge (more on this in the full trip report), I chose to bring my laptop through security and to gate-check it before my flight.
In contrast to my last visit to DXB in January of 2016, there is now a dedicated check-in area for US-bound flights. Upon entering the premium check-in area in Terminal 3, the dedicated US check-in counters are to the far left, across from the Express Check-in Desk. The display monitors at each counter showed a message indicating that electronics must be checked.
At the check-in desk, there was a laminated information sheet about the electronics ban. As I was checking in, the agent informed me about the ban and asked me how many electronics I planned to check (1 laptop) and what they were. She then notated that information into the reservation. There was no mention of the Surface tablet loan service, and in fact this was not mentioned by anyone at any point. To be honest, I completely forgot that this was even an option until I was on the ground at JFK. Of note, I did not see anyone in business class using a borrowed Surface tablet.
In the lounge, there were further notifications about the electronics ban on the display screens at each gate.
BOARDING AND GATE-CHECKING
In Dubai, Emirates business and first class passengers are able to board directly from the lounge. About ten minutes before boarding, I made my way to the boarding area in the lounge and got in line. After my passport and boarding pass were checked, the gate agent gave me a printed bag tag slip for my checked laptop. I then took the elevator down to the second floor of the terminal for upper level boarding. Immediately past the elevator, a few tables were set up: two for the standard security screen where carry-ons were checked, and another several feet behind those that was staffed by multiple Emirates agents who were gate-checking electronics. People with no electronics were quickly screened and let through, while passengers with electronics were asked to line up.
With a fairly long line just from the business class lounge, I can’t imagine what it looked like downstairs for coach boarding. Adding to the longer-than-usual security process, a woman with a British accent who was in front of me in line was evidently unaware of the electronics ban. In addition to being surprisingly uninformed, the woman displayed incredibly unacceptable behavior. Holding up the line for about 7-8 minutes, she threw a fit and berated multiple Emirates agents. To their credit, the agents who were trying to calm her down handled the situation with grace and professionalism. I found out later from a flight attendant on board that this particular passenger was originally booked on another carrier routing through Asia to get to the US, but for some reason was rebooked onto Emirates. So while maybe her surprise was a bit more understandable, the way she acted towards the staff was absolutely inexcusable. Every other passenger who was boarding from the business class lounge, in contrast, was well aware of the electronics policy.
At the carry-on screening table, passengers with electronics had their bags checked and their electronics tested to make sure they were off. After having my bag checked, I was directed to the third table right in front of the jetbridge. At this table, I was asked for my boarding pass and electronics bag tag. The agents then recorded my name, bag tag info/PNR, and the number and type of electronics checked. When I said I was checking a laptop, they specifically asked for the brand and wrote down that I was checking a MacBook — I thought this was a nice way to avoid potential mixups. After my information was taken down, my laptop (in its case) was wrapped in bubble wrap and placed into a cardboard box. The box was then sealed with several zip ties and tagged with a priority/business luggage tag. I was told that electronics could be collected at baggage claim.
I’ll be reviewing the flight separately, but for now I’ll just say that it was a unique experience not having access to my iPad (which I had checked in my luggage) or my laptop for the roughly 13 hour flight, but that’s what the bar on the A380 is for. I’m still kicking myself over having completely forgotten about the option to borrow a Surface tablet, but with only a 2-hour time limit (and more significantly, the unusably slow wifi on board), I can’t imagine I would have been too productive. That said, I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to review the process of borrowing a Surface tablet, and I encourage any readers who have experienced it to chime in in the comments.
ARRIVAL AND ELECTRONICS COLLECTION
As we started our descent, it was repeated during the pre-arrival announcements that electronics could be collected at baggage claim. We were parked at the gate at Terminal 4 by 2:48 PM, and I was able to breeze through Global Entry and be at baggage claim by 3:01 PM. While regular luggage came off of one belt (carousel 8), electronics came off a separate belt (carousel 9) that was right next to the regular luggage belt. In addition to periodic PA announcements, there was signage and a table with uniformed Emirates staff next to the belt dedicated to electronics.
By 3:08, I had my checked luggage. I then had to line up in front of the table for electronics. At 3:16, the electronics luggage belt started moving and the boxes of electronics, grouped together in flat bins rather than as individual pieces, started coming off. Instead of handing out electronics as they came off the belt, the agents waited for all of the electronics to come through the belt before sorting and organizing them by the table.
After this, they finally began handing them out. As the staff returned the electronics to passengers, they cut the zip ties on the boxes, discarded the packaging, and had passengers sign a receipt form for each piece of electronic equipment. I was second in line, and by 3:23 PM finally got my laptop back. The line quickly piled up, and with only 3-4 agents verifying passenger information and handing back electronics, I can imagine the wait was not insignificant for passengers further back.
Overall, I was pleased (or rather, not dissatisfied) with the way everything went. Emirates is making the best of a crappy situation and, based on reports from others on recent Qatar and Etihad flights, I would argue that Emirates is handling the ban better than their competitors. There was plenty of posted and verbal notification and information about the electronics policy from check-in to baggage claim, and I appreciated the care with which my laptop was treated, by both the staff in Dubai and in New York. I do wish that there had been more information/advertisement of the Surface tablet loan service, and I think the process of handing back electronics in the US could be better staffed — for passengers who weren’t able to quickly line up to get their electronics back in New York, the wait may have been inconveniently long.