Could A Laptop Ban Be Coming For Checked Luggage?

Image courtesy of TheeErin

Given the possibility of theft, damage, and loss, packing your laptop in a checked bag is not a good idea to begin with. Even so, travelers continue to stow their computers and other large electronics in their checked luggage. But that could come to an end, now that the Federal Aviation Administration has urged airlines around the world to stop this practice, citing the fire and explosion risk posed by the batteries in these devices.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the FAA made the suggestion in a paper filed with the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency that sets global aviation safety standards.

Exploding Batteries

The FAA pointed to recent tests of laptop lithium-ion batteries packed in checked luggage that found the devices could overheat causing fires, and in some cases explosions, as evidence supporting the need for a ban.

In all, the FAA conducted 10 tests in which a fully-charged laptop was placed in a packed suitcase near a variety of different consumer products permitted to be stored in checked luggage.

To imitate the cargo area of a plane, researchers placed a heater near the bag. This forced the laptop’s battery into a condition in which its temperature rises continually, The Tribune reports.

In one test, researchers placed an aerosol can of dry shampoo — which is permitted to be stored in checked luggage — next to the battery inside a suitcase. Once the battery was heated up, a fire started almost immediately. After about 40 seconds, the aerosol can exploded and the fire grew.

According to the FAA, the Halon gas fire suppressant system used in the plane’s cargo area was unable to extinguish the fire before the explosion occurred.

While the FAA notes that the fire and explosion might not be enough to damage the plane, if the Halon system doesn’t work properly the fire could spread, causing more damage.

Safety experts previously addressed this concern with our colleagues at Consumer Reports, noting that even if the suppression system worked, the batteries could continue to heat up or cause a chain reaction in which other batteries catch fire.

The Tribune reports that other FAA tests included packing nail polish remover, hand sanitizer, and other products near the laptop. In these cases, a fire started, but no explosion occurred.

The Recommendation

The FAA recommended to ICAO in the paper that passengers be prohibited from packing large electronic devices in checked baggage unless they have specific approval from the airline, The Tribune reports.

The agency notes that even without an airline’s approval lithium-ion batteries could make their way on to a plane via baggage transfers or cargo shipments. The FAA already prohibits passengers from packing spare lithium-ion batters in checked luggage, requiring travelers pack those items in carry-on luggage.

The Tribune reports that other aviation agencies — including the European Safety Agency — along with Airbus, the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Association, and other groups agreed with the FAA’s findings and recommendation to ICAO.

The ICAO is expected to discuss a possible laptop ban during meetings this week and next week in Montreal.

Past Issues

The FAA’s recommendation to ICAO comes just months after the agency reported that exploding lithium-ion battery explosions appeared to be on the rise.

According to a June report [PDF] from the FAA, in just the first four months of 2017 the agency had received reports of 17 incidents in which devices with lithium-ion batteries caught fire, overheated, or smoked in airplanes. Of these incidents, at least four occurred in the cargo or baggage hold area of the plane.

In all, the FAA said that since 1991 there have been 160 air or airport incidents involving lithium-ion batteries carried as cargo or baggage. However, the agency notes that the statistics shouldn’t be considered complete list, as it only reflects episodes reported to the agency.