Sunday, June 4, 2017

Broader Laptop Ban on Airplanes May Pose Fire Risk: Lithium batteries that would have to be stored in the cargo holds would cause hazard, aviation official says

The Wall Street Journal 
By Robert Wall and  Susan Carey
Updated June 1, 2017 4:48 p.m. ET


Banning carry-on laptops on international flights might create a fire risk from lithium batteries that would have to be stored in the cargo holds of aircraft, said an aviation official critical of a proposal being considered by the Trump administration.

“If you put all the electronic devices in the belly, it raises a clear safety concern,” said Alexandre de Juniac, director general of the International Air Transport Association, on Thursday. Electronics would be inaccessible to crews trained in dealing with fires.

U.S. and European Union officials continue to discuss possibly banning laptops from cabins of all inbound flights to the U.S. from Europe. Two months ago, the U.S. and the U.K. imposed a ban on some flights flying from the Middle East and North Africa. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said on Sunday that the restrictions could be expanded to all international flights into and out of the U.S.

U.S. authorities worry an explosive device could be easily hidden in an electronic device and triggered in the cabin, say people familiar with airline security plans.

But many laptops use lithium batteries that can overheat and catch fire. Regulators have restricted them.

In 2010 and 2011, for instance, cargo planes carrying lithium-ion batteries caught fire, in both cases killing crew members and destroying the plane. Boeing Co. also struggled with overheating of some lithium-ion batteries on its 787 Dreamliners and has had to place them in a fireproof container.

A person familiar with the Federal Aviation Administration’s thinking said the agency hasn’t done testing on how batteries within their devices would react in checked luggage. The Transportation Security Administration, with FAA input, in March issued guidance to airlines to discourage the practice of collecting all the banned devices and putting them in cargo containers. Instead, the TSA advised airlines to tell their passengers to pack their devices in their cases securely within their checked luggage.

This person said the FAA, based on its prior testing of individual batteries sent in large cargo shipments packed tightly together, “understands there are certain risks” and has been clear about this with the Department of Homeland Security. But the DHS is weighing security risks with what the FAA knows about batteries, this person said.

Those concerns were reignited this week when a lithium battery carried by a passenger on a JetBlue Airways Corp. flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to San Francisco overheated. The plane diverted to Grand Rapids, Mich.

It isn’t clear whether the battery in question was part of a laptop. JetBlue said “the situation was contained,” and that the FAA was conducting an investigation. The FAA initially said it believed the incident was caused by a laptop battery, though it still was investigating the exact nature of the device that caught fire. There were no injuries nor damage to the plane, the FAA said.

A U.S. administration official, who asked not to be named, last month said the risk of batteries in devices such as laptops or tablets catching fire was low. The fire risk largely involves bulk carriage of lithium devices that aren’t installed in equipment and therefore less well-shielded from damage.

But airline critics of the ban warn many replacement batteries in laptops are often cheap, poorly made devices that are susceptible to overheating. And once one catches fire, it risk triggering fires in even properly manufactured ones stored in devices now packed closely together.

Steve Landells, flight safety specialist for the British pilots union BALPA, said that “we don’t doubt the security threats that have led to consideration of extending the ban on devices but we urge the authorities to carefully assess the additional fire risk from storing more personal electronic devices in the hold to ensure we’re not solving one problem by creating a worse one.”

The European Aviation Safety Agency, after the initial electronic ban was announced, reminded airlines that portable electronic devices with lithium batteries “should preferably be carried in the passenger cabin, on the person, or in the carry-on baggage.” Where that isn’t possible, it urged airlines to take measures to store the devices with care.

Emirates Airline, the world’s largest carrier by international traffic and one of the airlines most hit by the U.S. electronics ban already in place, said it is packing devices not checked-in by passengers in individual boxes with padding to avoid damage before they are placed in the belly of the plane.

Britain’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, has told the country’s airlines to assure that any electronic devices placed in the hold of a plane are fully turned off and not just in standby mode. Precautions also should be taken to avoid the devices accidentally being turned on and that they don’t rattle around in their containers. The U.K. imposed an electronics ban on inbound flights similar to the U.S restrictions though on a slightly different set of countries.

The trade association, IATA, which represents 275 airlines, reiterated its position Thursday that there are ways to check for explosives in passengers’ portable electronic devices short of a ban on such devices in aircraft cabins, including using explosive-trace detection technology and more canine units at airports, and having governments share data on passengers deemed risky.

On Thursday, the group said that airline travel booking from the Middle East and North Africa to the U.S. and Europe slowed to the lowest level in five years in April, and March data indicated that Middle Eastern carriers’ traffic to the U.S. declined 2.8% from the year-ago period, the first annual decline in at least seven years.

While traffic growth was already slowing for other reasons, the decline is consistent with some disruption from the electronics ban on March 21, the group said. A recent survey commissioned by IATA indicated that 15% of business travelers would seek to reduce their travel in the face of a ban.

Original article can be found here:  https://www.wsj.com

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