Laptop Ban Spurs Fire Warning on Batteries in Jet Cargo Holds

By Alan Levin | April 20, 2017

The U.S. order prohibiting passengers from carrying laptop computers and other electronics into the cabins of some overseas flights is raising concerns about a risk unrelated to terror: the potential for those devices’ lithium-based batteries to catch fire in the baggage hold.

The Flight Safety Foundation, a non-profit funded by airlines and other groups to reduce the risk of accidents, on Friday issued a press release urging the industry to take steps not to “introduce another risk” from the highly flammable batteries powering the electronics.

The concern is that passengers are being told to place electronic devices into cargo holds just as international safety agencies have begun barring bulk shipments of rechargeable lithium cells because of evidence that they can spontaneously catch fire and even explode.

“It’s potentially a transfer of consequential risk,” Greg Marshall, vice president of Global Programs at the safety group, said in an interview. “We’re going to see large numbers of these devices carried in the cargo hold of aircraft that would otherwise have been in the cabin.”

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration logged 31 cases last year in which lithium-based batteries either caught fire or smoldered on airline flights. Three cargo aircraft have been destroyed by fires attributed at least in part to lithium batteries, two of which were fatal accidents, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

“We coordinated closely with the FAA and provided an information bulletin to the air carriers regarding the appropriate handling of electronics, including lithium batteries,” Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Jenny Burke said in an emailed response to the safety group’s warning.

On March 21, the U.S. notified airlines that it wouldn’t permit passengers on flights headed to the U.S. from 10 Middle Eastern airports – including Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Cairo – to carry any electronic device larger than a smartphone. DHS said the action was the result of new intelligence that terrorists were planning to target airlines by “smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items.”

The U.K. followed with a similar ban the same day. Representative John Katko, a New York Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation Security Subcommittee, said March 29 that the threat was real, and predicted other nations would broaden the ban. DHS Secretary John Kelly on Wednesday told Congress the action may be extended to other airports.

However, the fears over terrorism are colliding with one of the biggest concerns in airline safety: the worry that highly volatile batteries may ignite and fuel deadly aircraft fires.

United Nations

The United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization last year concluded that lithium-ion cells were too risky to be carried in bulk on passenger flights after manufacturers Boeing Co. and Airbus SE advised airlines that existing fire suppression systems weren’t adequate to protect planes against lithium fires.

While the terrorist threats may be real, the government should perform a risk analysis and take steps to reduce the potential for battery fires, said John Cox, a safety consultant who has written on the subject of aircraft fires.

Some carriers have allowed passengers to keep their laptops and tablet computers with them until just before departure, before gathering them in a bin to be stowed in the cargo hold, Cox said. Placing the devices in such close proximity to each other increases the potential risks if one catches fire, he said.

“If they are in the cargo hold and one overheats and goes into thermal runaway, you can’t deal with it,” he said.

Pilots and flight attendants are trained to extinguish a battery fire in the cabin, but wouldn’t be able to reach a blaze in a cargo area, he said.

Passengers should be reminded to switch off electronics if they pack them in checked bags, the Flight Safety Foundation’s Marshall said. They also shouldn’t assume it’s now permissible to stow spare batteries and e-cigarettes in luggage bound for the cargo hold. Those items are still prohibited in checked bags, he said.

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