For years, as they’ve expanded flights to the US, airlines such as Dubai’s Emirates Airline, Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways, Doha’s Qatar Airways and Istanbul’s Turkish Airlines have assiduously worked to present a “normal,” safe, non-threatening image to Americans. Check out this recent Emirates commercial featuring American TV and movie star Jennifer Aniston.
Aniston befriends a cute little American boy—flying home with his family on an Emirates Airbus A380—who has innocently wandered to her first-class suite. They drink carrot juice together. Later she meets the boy’s bedazzled family and joins them in economy class to play IFE games while the boy’s mother takes Aniston’s premium seat. This is about as “all-American” as you can get.
Kevin Costner, a leading man in American films for the last 30 years, has starred in Turkish Airlines commercials. As has American basketball superstar Kobe Bryant. The arena where the Washington Wizards professional basketball team plays its games in Washington DC is festooned with Etihad Airways advertisements nearly everywhere you look. When Qatar Airways started service to Miami, the popular Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan performed at the gala celebrating the service launch.
The message of all of this is unmistakable: not only are these airlines promoting top-notch service, modern aircraft and convenient connections from their hubs, but they are safe, secure and no different (except, the carriers would note, for the customer service) than flying on a US or European airline.
I think this may be the biggest setback to these airlines from the onboard electronics ban that the US Department of Homeland Security has announced. Sure, there are the immediate logistics concerns and near-term inconvenience for business passengers (see ATW Editor-in-Chief Karen Walker’s insightful blog post about flying from Abu Dhabi to the US as a business person who needs her laptop). But longer term, even if the ban is relatively short lived, DHS has cast a suspicion on these carriers that will be hard to shake.
An American looking to book a flight who sees Emirates come up in his online search may think, “Hey, isn’t that the airline with the cute Jennifer Aniston ad?”, but also—and perhaps now instead—“Hey, isn’t that one of the airlines you can’t take a laptop on because of fears that it might be a bomb?”
Years of work and millions of dollars spent cultivating a safe, friendly image in the US have been spoiled, at least partially, in one fell swoop. How many Americans are hearing about one or more of these airlines today for the first time? How many will be able to set aside the suspicions created about them by the US government?
There are no US airlines affected by the ban because none flies to the US from the 10 airports on the DHS list. The ban, in fact, is not pinpointing airlines at all; according to DHS, it is based on concerns about routes to the US from specific airports. Perhaps unintentionally, the ban gives the perception that the airports on the DHS list, and the airlines with hubs at those airports, are unsafe or insecure—even though, for example, US-bound passengers at Abu Dhabi International Airport are going through a US pre-clearance facility operated by US Customs and Border Protection.
How many Americans won’t book a ticket on one of these airlines because of the suspicion, however unfair, created by the electronics ban?