When Trump Hands You a Laptop Ban, Qatar Airways Makes Lemonade
Review of Laptop Ban origin
According to reports, US Intelligence recovered information that suggested terrorists had plans to use laptop computers in the passenger cabins of aircraft to inflict harm and successfully detonated one in February of 2016. Initially, the laptop ban was for a number of Middle Eastern countries however the ban is now potentially spreading to Europe. The UK has placed a ban on the use of laptops from some of the same countries, though the US ban affects far more countries than that of the UK.
The ban itself, sometimes referred to as an electronics ban, prohibits passengers from traveling with their laptops in the cabin of the aircraft and includes anything larger than a large mobile phone. This includes Kindles, iPads, even cameras from traveling in the cabin with a passenger.
A timeline of one year was suggested, though the liquid ban is still with us more than a decade later.
Impressions From Travelers
During a recent flight from Doha to Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to witness Qatar Airways approach to the ban and reactions of travelers both from the US and abroad. One traveler based in Qatar had suggested that their perception of the ban was that it was more of a business decision (to penalize the Middle East Three) than a response to a true terroristic threat. Another traveler, an American, rolled their eyes in disgust as they prepared to surrender an iPad ahead of a 15 hour and 27 minute flight.
The most disappointing reaction I personally witnessed was the complete indifference from a pair of Indian travelers who believed that this was just another requirement for entering an already difficult country. Had the agent asked for a blood sample they might have given one in the moments prior to boarding.
Qatar Airways outlines aspects of the process to customers on their website:
Complimentary laptop will be available for Business Class passengers to use while travelling on all US-bound flights from next week and can be collected after boarding. Customers will be able to download their work on to a USB before stepping on board to pick up where they left-off. Qatar Airways is offering a special service at the gate for all passengers, whereby any electronic items prohibited by the new ban will be collected and securely packaged. These will be tagged, loaded as check-in baggage and returned safely to the customer on arrival to the US.
What is not clear from that statement is what happens at the point of surrender, nor when you will receive your equipment back. For example, the statement is made that laptops will be returned to customers upon arriving in the US, but does this work like a gate check? Would there be a huge line in the jetway?
At the gate in Doha, I was told that my laptop will be available for pickup through the normal checked bag process with an attendant waiting to distribute them back to customers.
When departing to US destinations (which already have additional security measures and secured boarding areas), a desk was set to the side and attended by a pair of staff members who will wrap and pack your items in front of you.
First, the staff members ensure the devices are switched off even after asking. They opened my laptop and pressed the space bar to make sure it was fully powered down and not just in a sleep or hibernate mode.
Then one staff member fills out paperwork about who the items belong to (seat number was on the package) among other information. The other staff member begins to stack your devices if you have more than one, and wrap them in bubble wrap. The gentleman that wrapped mine was careful but quick and the process was transparent from start to finish.
Once the items were packed in bubble wrap they were carefully placed into a cardboard box which was also sealed and bore my information. Then the box was placed into a clear plastic bag, closed and sealed with a tamper-proof tie and handed back to me to put through the security process (scanner and x-ray belt) which I carried back to another checkin counter.
At the final checkin counter, my package was set behind the desk and an airline employee collected it and a few others and took them to the airplane to be loaded in plane’s cargo hold.
Qatar Airways offered HP Windows laptops with Microsoft’s Office suite and a power adapter onboard. In fact, I typed most of this review on that laptop. There were (8) laptops available for passengers who may request them which seemed like a very low number given the amount of business class seats on the flight. I was instructed to use a flash drive to save anything I had worked on, and make certain to delete it from the computer before turning it back in. I was also asked to keep the laptop charging the entire time I had it in use so it would be ready for the next passenger.
While I was hoping to be able to login via wifi and work online, my aircraft was not equipped with service and I had to transfer via the USB stick, however, this is a minor inconvenience of their process. I did not explore additional software on the devices as I wanted to limit my time and make the unit available for another passenger.
Upon landing at LAX and clearing customs I followed signs for my flight’s checked luggage and true to form there was a desk with staff members waiting to distribute property back to their owners staff members seemed completely unprepared.
As you might imagine, there was a substantial number of computers to return to their owners but the process seemed a surprisingly unorganized. The cardboard boxes (still in their sealed bags) came off the plane first but were sent through the normal process of conveyor belt to baggage carousel. I had assumed that kind of result from a US carrier, but after the level of care Qatar Airways had put into every other aspect of my experience I was utterly shocked that my equipment was treated as just any other box. I would have expected a cart to be rolled around from perhaps the oversized baggage claim belt with all of the boxes in order of seat numbers (there were no names on the boxes themselves).
As the baggage claim area began to fill up, more and more brown boxes dropped to the carousel and were collected by staff but set on the ground and slid to an undefined area. Though I was able to retrieve my own bag and box, and though I don’t know of anyone who has had a box go missing – it wouldn’t have been hard to steal one. There was simply too much chaos and too many people and items moving around to be sure.
Once a little more organization was provided, an employee took out a manifest compiled of those who had turned in their laptops, what seat they were in, their name and their baggage claim number (given when it was turned in at Doha). Instead of waiting, I like others looked for their own box, found it, and a man approached me with the list, verified it was mine and had me sign a disclosure form to say that I had collected it.
However, I could have just as easily grabbed one and walked away while they were still unloading (mine or otherwise). In fact, before I even left the baggage area (waiting for one more checked item), I had already opened, unwrapped and loaded my equipment into my backpack and could have left the box on the ground or discarded it elsewhere.
My intent is not to show how to steal someone’s laptop box but rather to say that for all of the care that went into the initial effort in Doha, the destination was an unorganized disaster. I spoke with one other passenger who had checked their laptop in right before me in Doha and walked out ahead of me by a few feet. Her sentiments were a little stronger than mine, but she was most concerned with the lack of a well-formed process.
“They’ve had months to come up with something better than this. The ban went into effect in March and it’s our country’s fault, but after two months you would think they would have something better in place. I expect more from Qatar.”
For me, the process demonstrated so much attention to detail at the time of loading, but at collection it was all for nothing. The boxes were not categorized in any particular way which made checking for the rightful owners and locating the packages difficult and time-consuming but the lack of protection of the assets from potentially nefarious characters is simply inexcusable. Had they been organized by seat number (as they were most clearly labeled on the outside of the package) and then distributed as such, the process could have been far easier.
How Was It?
The process was fairly smooth and allowed me to use my laptop during my previous flight and on my layover in Doha instead of checking it into the cargo hold from my departure city. Wrapping and packing equipment could have smoother, and the labels weren’t as big and clear as would have made me feel comfortable – they were hand written – however, it went as well as it could have gone in Doha. At the collection point, things could have been better organized but at the end of the day I left with my laptops in good working condition, damage-free and relatively quickly.
Some have said that Trump handed the middle east carriers lemons but in the case of Qatar Airways, they simply made lemonade. Lemonade that still needs a little work, however.