By Audrey Williams
Turkish Airlines has played a crucial role in securing Turkey’s international reputation; boosting both the tourist sector and diplomatic efforts in countries like Somalia. But the Trump administration’s electronics ban now puts this at risk.
An electronics ban on some flights to the U.S. and the U.K. from select airports in the Middle East has caused uproar in Turkey after Turkish Airlines was included on the list of affected carriers
The U.S. version of the ban, which was announced by the Trump administration last week, restricts passengers from carrying any electronic devices larger than a smartphone in their cabin baggage. These devices – which include laptops, tablets, and cameras – may still be stored in checked luggage, although exceptions are made for medical devices. American carriers flying from these airports are not included in the restrictions, but major Middle East airlines such as Emirates and Etihad Airways are.
The ban comes in response to terror threats targeting electronics on airlines, including a plot to conceal a bomb using a fake iPad, according to The Guardian.
The U.K. quickly followed suit with its own restrictions; banning electronics from all inbound flights from Turkey as well as several other countries, but included carriers regardless of national origin, with British Airways notably on the list.
The head of the International Air Transport Association pushed back against claims that the bans will make air travellers safer, pointing out the inconsistency of allowing electronics on some flights but not others coming from the same airport, and noting that the ban is likely to do little more than harm air carriers.
For Turkish Airlines in particular, the electronics ban could deal a serious blow given it is already facing already difficult circumstances, with recent domestic instability damaging Turkey’s reputation as a secure travel hub.
An “impractical” and “unacceptable” ban
Turkish officials have wasted no time blasting the ban. Speaking to Daily Sabah, Turkey’s Ambassador to the U.S., Serdar Kılıç, said that “[i]ncluding Turkey with some other countries into [sic] this ban is unacceptable,” noting that if security was a concern, authorities from the U.S. could have instead worked with Turkish authorities to fix any potential issues.
The Turkish government retains control of a little over 49% of Turkish Airlines, and transport minister, Ahmet Arslan, said that Turkey will fight the ban through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Bloomberg reported that Turkish Airlines’ stock fell 7.1 percent in the two days following the announcement of the ban.
In response, the airline is reportedly developing a special “gate check” type service for their passengers on affected flights, in which they would be allowed to use their large electronic devices up until boarding, at which time authorized staff would store their devices in special baggage to be stored in the cargo hold of the plane.
It remains to be seen whether such a measure will reassure passengers’ concerns about the potential for theft or breakage of their checked electronics.
A blow to Turkey’s economy and diplomacy
Turkey’s tourism industry has already suffered after a surge in terrorist attacks, including one targeting Istanbul’s Atatürk airport coupled with last July’s failed coup attempt.
The ban, therefore, comes as a further blow to the industry, with Turkish Airlines representing a key component of Turkey’s strategy for enticing visitors from abroad and enhancing the country’s international reputation.
Though it may not be the biggest airline in terms of fleet size, Turkish Airlines flies to the most destinations of any carrier. and has worked hard to build a reputation for the excellent quality of its service. As such, the growth of the airline in recent years has been a boon for Turkey’s increasingly ambitious and far-reaching foreign policy.
Turkey ranks number 6 on the Lowy Institute’s Global Diplomacy Index, which ranks a country’s diplomatic reach based on the number of diplomatic representations it maintains abroad. Turkey boasts a total of 225 diplomatic posts around the world, including 132 embassies.
This has been made possible in large part by the direct links provided by Turkish Airlines to destinations which are often neglected by other major air carriers.
In 2012, Turkish Airlines became the first major airline to land in Somalia in two decades. The opening of a Turkish Airlines roundtrip service between Istanbul and Mogadishu followed a concerted effort by Turkey’s government to expand its relations with the east african country, which itself is part of Turkey’s larger “opening up to Africa” strategy.
The importance of Turkish Airline’s unique presence in Somalia was highlighted just before the Trump administration announced its electronics ban when several celebrities – including Jerome Jarre, Colin Kaepernick, and Ben Stiller – promoted a social media campaign that asked the airline to help tackle a growing famine in the country
The #TurkishAirlinesHelpSomalia hashtag went viral; helping to raise more than $1 million in donations. And in response, Turkish Airlines pledged to send a plane with supplies of food and water to the country.
This comes after then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the country in 2011 and pledged to tackle a previous crippling famine, with Turkish citizens eventually contributing approximately $300 million to a national aid campaign.
By endangering the growth of the Turkish Airlines, the electronics ban also threatens the diplomatic relations that such growth has supported. #TurkishAirlinesHelpSomalia gave international recognition to Turkey’s role as a humanitarian actor, and was a brief moment in the sun for the carrier and a nation that is currently experiencing its own difficulties. However, the electronics ban now threatens to add to the of turbulence affecting Turkey’s international reputation.