Could putting laptops in the hold actually make flying more dangerous? – Telegraph.co.uk
With the Government suggesting there may be cause in future to extend the laptop ban to include inbound flights from around the world, there are concerns among experts that putting electrical items in the hold is actually dangerous.
As of Saturday, air passengers flying back from Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan have had to check in large electrical items with their hold luggage due to concerns about a terrorist attack.
Aside from the debate about whether or not the measure is proportionate to the risk, some experts suggest we should be asking whether this is actually safe.
When do electrical gadgets cause fires?
Lithium-ion batteries are used in laptops and many other electrical devices because they have a high energy density. Unfortunately, while it is not common, they have been known to cause fires.
Last year, a United Nations aviation watchdog recommended that cargo shipments of large numbers of these rechargeable lithium batteries should be banned from passenger airlines because they can create fires capable of destroying planes.
The International Civilian Aviation Organisation agreed the ban and itÂ came into force on April 1, but was not adopted within the EU.
According to the BBC, tests by aviation bodies have established that lithium-ion batteries can self-ignite and burn with a heat of about 600C – close to the melting point of the aluminium used in the superstructure of many aircraft.
Separate tests also established that overheated batteries can give off fumes that, if they build up, can lead to explosions that knock out onboard fire suppression systems allowing the fires to burn uncontrolled.
These findings led Boeing and Airbus to declare in 2015 that continuing to ship lithium-ion batteries in bulk was “an unacceptable risk”.
What about the batteries in my gadgets?
The ban only covers the transporting of many batteries together in the hold and there is thought to be much less of a risk from batteries contained in seperate devices.
But there are cases of batteries carried by individuals catching fire, such as the headphones that burnt the face of a female passenger on a recent flight from Beijing to Melbourne.
“As the range of products using batteries grows, the potential for in-flight issues increases,” the Australian Transport Safety Bureau said in a report into the incident. One of its recommendations was that spare batteries should not be checked into the hold.
E-cigarettes are also powered by lithium batteries and are already prohibited from checked-in baggage by both the US Department of Transportation and the UKâs Civil Aviation Authority due to their volatility.
In October last year, a United Airlines flight destined for Houston was delayed because of a fire started by a battery pack for a vape cigarette. The e-cigarette was attached to its charger in one passengerâs luggage, which was spotted smoking by baggage handlers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
âEven if lithium-ion batteries are put in checked luggage, there is still a fire risk associated with them,” said Mike Zimmerman, CEO and Founder of Ionic Materials, a company that develops battery materials.
“In fact, having people pack electronic devices in checked bags could prove to be more harmful than allowing passengers to carry them on the plane, since there would be no way to extinguish a fire in the cargo hold.
“Current batteries possess a liquid electrolyte, which can catch fire and explode when the batteries short,” he explained. “Battery shortages cause the liquid electrolyte to heat up – leading to ensuing fires and explosions – and occur due to a number of reasons: manufacturing defects, damages, impurities, etc – whether they are in the passenger cabin or in the cargo hold.âÂ
The view tallies with that of aviation expert John Strickland, of JLS Consulting, who told the CNBC news service last week that there was a real danger to loading a plane’s hold with items containing lithium batteries.
“If these batteries are damaged they could have this thermal runaway fire and that itself is a security challenge of a different kind that the airlines would have to wrestle with,” he said.
How can I minimise the risk of fire?
âFor those traveling with electronics powered by lithium-ion batteries, the most effective preventative measures to take are to only charge devices to 50 per cent,” advised Mr Zimmerman. “Passengers can also keep the devices turned off during a flight, to avoid overcharging, or over discharging of the battery.âÂ
E-cigarette users in the UK have been warned by the fire brigade to carry their batteries in a plastic case to prevent them short circuiting, rather thanÂ leaving them loose in bags where they can come into contact with other metal objects.