Laptop Flipflop: Now US Tries To Ban Laptops in Checked, Not Carry-On, Luggage – Forbes

Kuwaiti social media activist Thamer al-Dakheel Bourashed puts his laptop inside his checked luggage before boarding a flight to the U.S. in March, when America banned laptops from the passenger cabins of inbound flights from the Arab World. It later rescinded the ban, and is now seeking to ban laptops from checked luggage instead. (Photo by YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Seven months after America banned laptops from the passenger cabins of flights from the Arab World – forcing travelers to check them into the cargo hold – the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) wants global airlines to ban the very practice its government had previously imposed on them.

The FAA’s advice is based on new safety tests showing that the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries found in laptops could bring down an aircraft if they overheat in checked luggage packed with everyday flammable items.

It findings are published in a paper submitted to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN agency that issues non-binding air safety guidance to the international community. The proposed ban has already won the backing of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and Airbus, the European aircraft manufacturer, making it highly likely that ICAO will lend its support. Even then, however, individual governments will have the final say on ratifying any measures.

The report cites ten experiments the FAA conducted with fully-charged laptops packed inside a suitcase. In each case, a heater was placed against the laptop’s lithium-ion battery to intentionally trigger thermal runway – a destructive process of continuous heat-increases that ignites an open fire.

For the first four tests, the bag contained no other dangerous items and the resultant fires were extinguished by the Halon fire-suppression system that is widely used in cargo holds. In a fifth experiment without other flammable items, the Halon system was not present and the suitcase was fully consumed by fire.

But it was the subsequent tests that were most alarming, as they demonstrated how certain everyday items can exacerbate thermal runway to such a degree that the lifesaving Halon system becomes ineffective.

A test of this same scenario was also conducted with an eight-ounce aerosol can of dry shampoo strapped to the laptop battery and added to the suitcase contents. The dry shampoo is currently permitted to be carried in checked baggage.

This test yielded the most troubling results. Fire was observed almost immediately after thermal runaway was initiated. The fire rapidly grew, and within 40 seconds, the aerosol can of shampoo exploded with the resulting fire rapidly consuming the bag and its contents. This test showed that, given the rapid progression of the fire, a Halon fire suppression system cannot dispense Halon quickly enough to reach a sufficient concentration to suppress the fire and prevent the explosion.

Other experiments showed that nail polish remover, hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol also accelerate battery fires, but it was the explosive effect of the aerosol can that had experts most concerned.

While an exploding aerosol can is unlikely to cause structural damage to an aircraft, the impairment of the Halon system means that a fire could spread freely through the cargo hold and into other compartments such as the passenger cabin and electronics bay. This chain of events, the FAA warns, “could lead to the loss of the aircraft”.


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