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What It Was Like to Fly on Etihad During the Electronics Ban

March 28, 2017
11 min read
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Last week, rumors were confirmed that there was indeed a new ban on large carry-on electronics that would impact nine foreign airlines operating nonstop flights to the US from 10 Middle Eastern and African airports. The airlines were given until Saturday morning at 3:00am to fully implement these new restrictions, but the combination of a 96-hour advance notice with seemingly sparse guidelines ensured confusion as the restrictions were put into place.

In order to see for ourselves how the electronics ban would be implemented by different airlines and airports, JT Genter and I took a last-minute trip to the Middle East. Both of us observed Qatar Airways' gate-side security and boarding area for US-bound flights before each of us went our separate ways, leaving Doha (DOH) on Saturday and Sunday so we could experience the electronics ban for ourselves on our way back to the US.

Starting in DOH, I flew Etihad to Abu Dhabi (AUH) on Saturday, stayed overnight, then flew from Abu Dhabi (AUH) to Dallas (DFW) on Sunday, while JT connected from DOH to Muscat (MCT) on Sunday, then flew Emirates from MCT through Dubai (DXB) to New York (JFK) on Monday. Here's what it was like to fly Etihad on the second day of the electronics ban.

Abu Dhabi Airport's Published Guidelines

As of last weekend, the guidelines on the US Preclearance Facility page of the official AUH website merely claim that all passengers traveling to the US, UK and Canada "are required to turn on all electronic devices in their possession prior to boarding." Otherwise, there was no mention of the new ban to be found on the site.

The website did note, however, that "passengers are advised to contact their respective airlines to clarify if there are any updates or new requirements on security checks to their flight destination," so I checked out Etihad's website next.

Etihad Airways' Published Guidelines

Etihad's website was a little more helpful, with multiple pages of information regarding US-bound flights, although some of it was conflicting. The baggage guide and US Preclearance pages stated that passengers traveling to the US were "not permitted to carry electronic devices larger than a cell phone or smartphone in the cabin." The site advised that cell phones larger than 16cm x 9.3cm x 1.5cm couldn't be carried on, while larger electronic items would need to be placed into checked baggage at the point of origin.

The Prohibited Items section of Etihad's baggage information page had a special "applicable to flights to the United States only" section, which provided additional advice regarding batteries, specifically that "battery packs, power-banks and spare batteries larger than 16cm x 9.3cm x 1.5cm are prohibited from both checked baggage and cabin baggage" along with a warning that batteries would be confiscated during security screening.

Finally, I checked Etihad's mishandled baggage page, which said, "Fragile and perishable items, valuables, computers and personal electronic devices, stored data and cameras" shouldn't be transported in checked baggage," which, of course, directly contradicts what was listed on the other pages saying that electronics such as laptops would need to be checked. The mishandled baggage page noted that Etihad would check "fragile... and inadequately-packed baggage upon completion of a Limited Release Baggage tag," which essentially frees the airline from having any liability regarding the piece of checked baggage.

What I Tried to Carry On Board

Since my mission was to experience the joy of flying under the new electronics ban, I carried on most of my electronics to see what would happen when I tried to travel with them. Full disclosure: I did pack my laptop and my Canon G7X camera in my checked bag, since I was unwilling to potentially have these items permanently confiscated.

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For both of my flights — from DOH to AUH and from AUH to DFW — I attempted to carry on the following electronics and batteries (dimensions that are deemed to be too large have been bolded, below):

  • Google Nexus 5X cellphone (14.71cm x 7.26cm x 0.79cm)
  • Apple iPod Nano with earbud headphones (7.62cm x 4.06cm x 0.51cm)
  • Canon PowerShot A2500 camera (9.8cm x 5.6cm x 2.1cm)
  • Kindle Paperwhite e-reader (17.02cm x 11.68cm x 0.91cm)
  • Fitbit Charge HR (17.53cm x 2.03cm x 1.02cm)
  • JVC HA-NC250 noise-canceling headphones with detachable cord (20.32cm x 20.57cm x 7.11cm)
  • Anker PowerCore 13000 Portable Charger (9.65cm x 8.13cm x 2.29cm)

Based on my knowledge of the new electronics ban and Etihad's published guidelines, I figured I'd likely be able to carry on my cellphone and iPod since both were within the specified dimensions and weren't explicitly banned. Likewise, I assumed I wouldn't be able to carry on my e-reader, since it was larger than the specified dimensions and was explicitly banned. The other wildcard items were more questionable, unless it turned out the regulations were strictly being upheld.

Checking in at DOH

For my flight from DOH to AUH, I checked in online and planned to carry on all of my bags for the short hop from DOH to AUH. Etihad agents spotted my US passport at the gate and spoke among themselves in another language before asking me how much time I would be spending in Abu Dhabi. I explained that I would be staying overnight, which satisfied them. Throughout my experience checking-in and boarding in DOH, there was no mention of the new electronics ban whatsoever.

Checking in at AUH

I was able to print a luggage tag at a self-check-in kiosk, but not my boarding pass for my flight from AUH to DFW. Instead, I was directed to a special "USA Flights" area where I could check my bag and obtain my boarding pass. There was a sign — shown below — at the check-in desk regarding the new electronics policy, but I wasn't given any information about it nor was I asked any questions about anything I might have had in my bag electronics-wise at the check-in desk.

The Security Screening at AUH

After check-in, all passengers — regardless of destination — went through a normal TSA PreCheck type of security screening. After walking to the US Preclearance Facility at the far end of Terminal 3, which was serving flights to LAX, JFK and DFW when I was there, each passenger's boarding pass was examined. Mine was marked with a printed "SSSS," which meant I was tagged for an additional security screening. I was led by a security officer to another desk, where my boarding pass and passport were scanned before being taken to a separate room that was adjacent to the security screening hall.

This room had about 60 chairs, a children's play area, a TV playing CNN and a bookshelf with books printed in both Arabic and English. There were consistently about 20-30 other passengers waiting here with me — a security agent would come in every five minutes or so, call out two names, confirm the people's identity and lead them outside to be individually screened.

Once my name was called, I was taken to a table before the scanner to unpack my bag. The security agent insisted on unpacking the bag himself, but kept asking me where more electronics and cables were located. When he found my portable charger, which I had just purchased two weeks earlier for $32, he said I "couldn't have it due to regulations." When I pushed harder, asking why, he claimed it was "too thick." I was told I couldn't take a picture of the device and that my only options were to throw it away or not travel at all.

Before putting a bin with all of my remaining electronics through the scanner, the security agent faced the screens of all devices upward, although none of them were actually checked for functionality. I walked through the scanner with no alarms and was then taken to a little room for a thorough pat down by a female security agent.

When I returned to my belongings, security had located the iPod and camera that were in my backpack. They spoke about the iPod in another language for a short time before telling me to take my camera and boarding pass to an Etihad desk in the corner of the security screening hall. I was then told I could repack all of my other electronics in my carry-on bag when I returned.

Etihad's Re-Packing Desk

Once at the Etihad desk in the corner of the security screening hall, the Etihad agents looked at the camera and asked which security line had sent me. The Etihad agent and I walked back to the special security line, where a conversation ensued in another language. It seemed that the Etihad agent wanted to allow me to take the camera on board with me. He lost the argument though, so we went back to the desk. I was then told to put my camera in the provided padded envelope and seal it. The Etihad agent put a "Limited Release Baggage" tag on the envelope and put a claim tag on the back of my boarding pass. The envelope was then put in a box marked "DFW" and I was told to pick up my electronics upon arrival in Dallas.

So, just to clarify which of my electronics made it on the plane:

  • Google Nexus 5X cellphone (within limits) — NO ISSUES
  • Fitbit Charge HR (wristband too long) — NO ISSUES
  • Kindle Paperwhite e-reader (too wide and tall) — NO ISSUES
  • JVC HA-NC250 noise canceling headphones with detachable cord (exceeded all dimensions) — NO ISSUES
  • Apple iPod Nano with ear bud headphones (within limits) — ALLOWED AFTER CONSIDERATION
  • Canon Powershot camera (too thick) — PACKED AT GATE
  • Anker PowerCore 13000 Portable Charger (too thick) — CONFISCATED

US Pre-Clearance Immigration

I have Global Entry — having gotten the fee reimbursed through my Citi Prestige Card — but ended up facing substantially more questions than usual by the US immigration agent at AUH. He asked me all the usual questions, but then seemed to test my Texas geography for a couple minutes after claiming to have family in Texas. It's unclear if this longer-than-expected immigration interview was due to (1) my last minute one-way ticket to/from the Middle East, (2) my checked and/or carry-on electronics or (3) his legitimate interest in Texas.

Getting My Electronics Back at DFW

Since Etihad flights from AUH to DFW are US Preclearance flights, we arrived as a domestic arrival at DFW. An announcement said that any electronics held for storage during the flight would be available for pick-up after disembarking the aircraft.

I saw two boxes of electronics — one containing laptops in clear but sealed plastic bags and the other containing various electronics in brown sealed envelopes — at the gate. Two gate agents took each passenger's claim tag before handing over their belongings.

Subsequent Clarification from Etihad

Just after my journey was complete, Etihad clarified its policies for implementing the electronics ban, interestingly dropping the thickness regulation and explicitly allowing spare lithium batteries and power banks. There was also a new option for guests who didn't want to check their electronics for the entire itinerary. Passengers are still encouraged to check their electronics if possible.

Etihad's latest announcement is a passenger-friendly move that'll minimize the amount of time travelers must be separated from their electronics due to the new ban. It also brings Etihad more in line with what Qatar and Emirates are doing for their passengers. In the meantime, let's just hope the "specially provided secure cases" are durable enough to protect laptops and other expensive electronics.

Have you been on a US-bound Etihad flight since the electronics ban was implemented? Share your experience with us, below.

Featured image by JT Genter