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The Middle East's top 3 airlines are cleverly defying the US government's laptop ban

Benjamin Zhang
Emirates Airbus A380

(Emirates Airbus A380.Emirates)
The Department of Homeland Security's ban on large electronics has been in effect for a week.

The ban, which covers nine airlines, forbids passengers from bringing any electronic devices larger than a cell phone into the cabin of non-stop flights to the US from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa.

The ban has been an unmitigated headache for the airlines and their customers. 

Business travelers and their laptops are generally inseparable. Many passengers use time in transit to work. The laptops might also contain sensitive or confidential information companies don't want getting out. 

The ban and resulting headaches have become a major concern for the affected airlines because repeat corporate business travelers and their immense spending power are their single most important block of customers.

Emirates Airlines CEO Sir Tim Clarke

(Emirates President Sir Tim Clark.REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
As a result, several of airlines including industry heavyweights, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Etihad, and Turkish Airlines have come up with a series of work arounds to counter the ban. Based on the latest rankings from the respected consumer-aviation website Skytrax, these four airlines also represent the first-, second-, sixth-, and seventh-ranked carriers in the world.

Emirates, was the first of the major airlines to offer a response to the conundrum. On March 23, Emirates announced a service that will allow passengers to use their laptops and tablets until it's time to board their US-bound flights instead of checking them with their luggage.

Prior to boarding, passengers hand over their laptops and other electronic devices to staff members to who pack them in secure boxes before storing them in the cargo hold.

Operations at Emirates, one of the major carriers affected, has gone relatively well apart from some slow arriving bags at US airports, airline president Sir Tim Clark told Business Insider.

"Our aim is to ensure compliance with the new rules, while minimizing disruption to passenger flow and impact on customer experience," Clark said in a statement. "Our new complimentary service enables passengers, particularly those flying for business, to have the flexibility to use their devices until the last possible moment."

Even though Emirates' work around doesn't quite offer a perfect solution for the problem, it does mitigate a good portion of the hardship created for passengers by the ban.

Turkish Airlines has joined Emirates with a similar laptop handling policy. According to Turkish, passengers' electronic devices will be packed in secure boxes at the departure gate. Once in the US, the boxes will be returned to them by the airline. To ensure security, airline employees will personally return each box to its rightful owner by matching baggage tag numbers.

In addition, Turkish Airlines announced on Twitter this week that passengers who turn in their laptops and tablets at boarding would receive free WiFi on board the flight. Skytrax has named the Istanbul, Turkey-based carrier Europe's best airline six years in a row.

Saudia also tweeted that all passengers going to or returning from the US and UK will get 20 MB of free WiFi access.

This week, Etihad upped the ante by announcing that first and business class passengers on flights to the US will have access to complimentary WiFi and loaner iPads.

"To help guests keep in touch with work, friends and family, we are offering First & Business Class guests free WiFi and iPads on all our US-bound flights, beginning Sunday, April 2," Etihad said in an email to Business Insider. "Wi-Fi vouchers will be distributed by our cabin crew onboard, providing free Wi-Fi for the duration of the flight. In addition, we’ll have iPads available for those that need them. Power and USB sockets at every seat will help keep devices charged."

One day after Etihad's announcement, Qatar Airways raised the bar again by offering its business class passengers free loaner laptops along with an hour of free WiFi on all of its to the US. (Qatar's US-bound fleet does not offer a traditional first class cabin.)

"By providing this laptop loan service we can ensure that our passengers on flights to the US can continue to work whilst on-board," Qatar Airways Group's CEO, Akbar Al Baker, said in a statement. "This unique ability to offer 'business as usual,' above and beyond the competition, is yet another example of Qatar Airways justification for being the 'World's Best Business Class.'"

While Emirates' program extends to all passengers, neither Etihad nor Qatar Airways' service are available for the economy cabin. Emirates has also hinted that it, too, may offer laptop loans on board its flight. However, the Dubai, United Arab Emirates-based carrier has not made an official decision.

That's because the airline does not yet have conclusive data on the long-term effect the laptop ban will have on its business, which according to Clark won't happen until sometime in May.

For now, airlines are simply working to make the best of an inconvenient situation.

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