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Aviation

US seeks global ban on laptops in checked airline luggage, citing risk of battery fire and catastrophic explosion

Proposed ban will be tabled at an international meeting of airlines next week, after tests show risks of explosion and ‘loss of aircraft’ if batteries overheat next to an aerosol spray

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 October, 2017, 10:18am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 October, 2017, 8:13pm

The US government is urging the world airline community to ban large, personal electronic devices like laptops from checked luggage because of the potential for a catastrophic fire.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a paper filed recently with a UN agency that its tests show that when a laptop’s rechargeable lithium-ion battery overheats in close proximity to an aerosol spray can, it can cause an explosion capable of disabling an airliner’s fire suppression system. The fire could then rage unchecked, leading to “the loss of the aircraft,” the paper said.

The UN agency, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, sets global aviation safety standards, although member countries must still ratify them.

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The proposed ban is on the agenda of a meeting of ICAO’s panel on dangerous goods being held this week and next week in Montreal.

The FAA has conducted 10 tests involving a fully-charged laptop packed in a suitcase. A heater was placed against the laptop’s battery to force it into “thermal runaway”, a condition in which the battery’s temperature continually rises.

In one test, an aerosol can of dry shampoo – which is permitted in checked baggage – was strapped to the laptop. There was a fire almost immediately and it grew rapidly. The aerosol can exploded within 40 seconds.

The test showed that because of the rapid progression of the fire, Halon gas fire suppressant systems used in airline cargo compartments would be unable to put out the fire before there was an explosion, the FAA said. The explosion might not be strong enough to structurally damage the plane, but it could damage the cargo compartment and allow the Halon to escape, the agency said. Then there would be nothing to prevent the fire from spreading.

Other tests of laptop batteries packed with potentially dangerous consumer goods that are permitted in checked baggage like nail polish remover, hand sanitiser and rubbing alcohol also resulted in large fires, although no explosions.

As a result, the paper recommends that passengers shouldn’t be allowed to pack large electronic devices in baggage unless they have specific approval from the airline. The paper says the European Safety Agency, the FAA’s counterpart in Europe; Airbus, one of the world’s largest makers of passenger airliners; the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Association, and the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Association, which represents aircraft makers, concurred in the recommendation.

The paper doesn’t address whether the ban should extend to domestic flights, but points out the risk that baggage containing a large electronic device could be transferred from one flight to another without the knowledge of the airline. The FAA said it believes most devices larger than a smartphone are already being carried by passengers into the cabin, rather than put in checked bags.

Rechargeable lithium batteries are used in consumer products ranging from cellphones and laptops to electric cars. Manufacturers like them because they pack more energy into smaller packages, but the batteries can self-ignite if they have a manufacturing flaw, are damaged, exposed to excessive heat, overcharged or packed too closely together. The fires can burn up to 600 degrees Celsius, close to the melting point of the aluminium used in aircraft construction.

Since 2006, three cargo jets have been destroyed and four pilots killed by in-flight fires that investigators say were either started by batteries or made more severe by their proximity.

Earlier this year, the US imposed a ban on laptops in the cabins of planes coming into the country from 10 Middle Eastern airports for security reasons. The ban was fully lifted in July after US officials said airports in the region had taken other steps to increase security.