In October, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration began urging the world airline community to ban large, personal electronic devices like laptops from checked luggage on international flights due to the potential for a catastrophic fire.
The FAA is concerned about the lithium-ion batteries that are common in electronic devices like laptops. Tests conducted by the agency have concluded that when large electronics overheat in luggage they run the risk of combustion when packed with aerosol canisters like hairspray and dry shampoo. Depending on the type of plane, the potential for explosion becomes a danger to the entire aircraft.
FAA conducts tests
The agency conducted 10 tests, with four that included potentially explosive materials in addition to the laptop, including a bottle of dry shampoo, a 6-ounce bottle of nail polish remover, a 2-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer, and a 16-ounce bottle of 70% ethyl rubbing alcohol. All caused fires, but only the one with the dry shampoo exploded in a manner that couldn’t be contained by fire suppression systems in the aircraft and engulfed the luggage compartment within just 40 seconds.
Appeal to U.N.
The FAA submitted a paper to a United Nations agency detailing the results of their tests and stating that the fire could then rage unchecked, leading to “the loss of the aircraft.”
In the paper, the FAA explains in detail that the fire suppression systems in some modern airplanes are no match against the kinds of explosions that the FAA tested for. The FAA believes that the only reason there haven’t been more explosive incidents from electronic devices in checked baggage is simply because most people take their laptops and other devices larger than a smartphone in their carry-on.
While the FAA’s paper doesn’t address whether there should be a domestic ban, they do consider this a global issue and hopes to set a worldwide standard through the UN, since people so commonly hop on connecting flights.
Airplane industry agrees
According to the Associated Press, the largest airplane manufacturers as well as the FAA’s counterpart in Europe all agree with the FAA’s findings in the paper. The U.S. has previously toyed with the idea of banning all laptops in the cabin on all planes for international flights traveling to the U.S.
Potentially confusing to passengers
The FAA’s ban proposal may be unclear to passengers, who remember the laptop ban from earlier this year that was implemented by the US Department of Homeland Security against flights from 10 different Middle Eastern countries. Those flights didn’t allow passengers to carry large electronic devices in the cabin. That ban was allegedly in place because of credible threats to commercial aircraft by terrorist organizations. The ban was lifted in July after the 10 airports that were impacted reportedly made security improvements.
The FAA’s paper does explore alternatives to an outright ban on laptops in checked baggage, including allowing it to happen on the kinds of planes with the most advanced fire suppression systems, and asking passengers not to pack things like dry shampoo in the same bag as laptops. But the agency’s final recommendation is to simply ban laptops outright from being stored in checked bags.
The paper acknowledges the lack of data beyond its own 10 tests and specifically says that it welcomes further analysis from the international community.