The Trump administration announced on Tuesday its latest effort to make life more difficult for anyone—citizen or noncitizen—who wishes to travel to and from the United States. As of right now, passengers on directs flights leaving 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa on eight non-U.S. airlines are prohibited from bringing electronics larger than a cellphone on board.
The justification given was security grounds, although that sounds dubious. If laptops are dangerous in the cabin, why aren’t they dangerous in the cargo hold? Meanwhile, the list excludes airports in places like Venezuela, a country about which the U.S. government has issued a travel warning. In the Washington Post, Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman smartly unpack some of the trade politics that may be behind the laptop ban. Several of the airlines in questions are either state carriers or enjoy significant government support that puts U.S. carriers at a disadvantage. In other words, this move could be an extension of Trump’s twice-foiled travel ban, but it could also be an outgrowth of his protectionist trade policy.
But on top of all that, the device ban is also the latest in the Trump administration’s efforts at a certain kind of class warfare—business class warfare. In addition to being a jab at foreign companies and another act of policy shaped by rank xenophobia, the announcement is a giant middle finger to one group of people you’d think our mogul in chief would like to keep happy: business travelers.
The use of laptops (and tablets) on long flights isn’t simply a convenience or a cure for boredom. It’s a requirement for any knowledge worker who works internationally. The planes plying the routes between Abu Dhabi and New York, between Riyadh and Washington, are filled with professionals of all types hunched over their MacBooks and ThinkPads.
The ability to work on long flights has evolved quickly over the years. Until recently, one of the virtues of having your laptop on the plane was that the cabin of an airplane winging across the Atlantic was the one place you could work without the constant interruptions of co-workers, social media, and emails. I looked forward to them as opportunities to write book proposals or finish chapters.
Now, however, another reality has taken hold. Access to in-flight internet via GoGo or other services is something close to standard. It kicks in at 10,000 feet. Virtually every plane is equipped with power plugs that can keep laptops juiced for the entire journey. On a recent flight back from Europe, eight grinding hours during a work day, I was able to be online—and hence in my office—pretty much the whole time. The internet access is slow, doesn’t let you stream video, and can fade in and out over the ocean. But it lets people do pretty much everything else: get into secure systems or dashboards, chat with colleagues, trade stocks, move money, sign and forward contracts, monitor sales on your e-commerce site, fine-tune the proposal you’re going to make upon landing.
As a result, the expectations and norms surrounding business travel have changed. There is a large class of highly compensated people for whom time is money—they bill by the hour or by the day. Investment bankers, management consultants, lawyers, accountants, project managers, engineers, architects. For them, long international flights used to be an economic black hole—you couldn’t really charge clients for the time, and you couldn’t get much work done. But now, for a lawyer who charges $1,000 an hour, paying $5,000 for a one-way business class seat from Dubai to the U.S. makes sense, even if she can comfortably do only seven hours of work. The same calculus holds for the accountant in coach. At the same time, we work in a business climate in which people expect you to be connected at all times. The idea that you’re on a plane for 10 hours is no longer an excuse for not responding to a colleague or client.
There is something particularly pernicious about the way this laptop ban works. It doesn’t apply to flights leaving the U.S. for the Middle East—which is to say west-east travel. But on those flights, a lack of connectivity or access to a laptop isn’t as much of an issue. These flights often go overnight, when it is permissible to be unplugged and passengers may spend most of the time sleeping. Those flights also tend to be shorter. But east-west travel is another story. The flights take longer and are often timed to coincide with work hours at home.
Take the laptop—and internet access—out of people’s hands, and it destroys their capacity to work. It turns several productive hours into unproductive ones. And there is huge amount of business to be done in the countries affected by the laptop ban. Saudi Arabia has a GDP of about $650 billion and Saudi Aramco is about to stage what could be the world’s largest initial public offering. Morocco is building some of the world’s largest solar plants. Istanbul’s airport is an important regional hub, and the gateway to a market of 75 million people. Major U.S. multinationals all have outposts, operations, and significant holdings in the countries serviced by these airports. In a way, the laptop ban doesn’t simply alienate individual business travelers; it alienates entire economies. Erecting policies that inhibit or discourage the free flow of people and commerce is just as protectionist as building a wall or slapping tariffs on imported goods.
Now, globe-trotting knowledge workers face a choice when returning from a business trip. They can stick to the nonstop flight and write off the east-west flight as wasted time, and read newspapers and books or watch in-flight movies. Or they could seek a less direct route home, which would allow them to be connected for some portion of the travel. One way to avoid the ban would be to fly from Saudi Arabia to Frankfurt, London, or Paris and then catch a flight on Delta or American back home. But doing so violates one of the cardinal rules of business travel. If you’re flying for work, you always fly direct if you can to eliminate downtime and reduce the risk of delays and cancellations. It’s good business. And our president is supposed to be all about good business, right?