A sudden security ban on laptops, tablets, cameras, and most other electronics in the passenger cabins of certain direct flights to the U.S. has some airline analysts raising red flags over possible safety hazards.
The ban took effect on Tuesday, March 21, and applies to nonstop inbound U.S. flights from Cairo, Egypt; Amman, Jordan; Kuwait City, Kuwait; Casablanca, Morocco; Doha, Qatar; Riyadh and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Istanbul, Turkey; and Abu Dhabi and Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
The Department of Homeland Security based the ban on intelligence indicating that Islamic terrorists are developing explosives that can be disguised as batteries in electronic devices.
But the ban only extends to electronics in carry-on luggage, so passengers on those flights will likely pack their lithium-ion-battery-powered devices in their checked luggage, and that has some experts worried.
“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,” John Strickland, an aviation expert and consultant, told CNBC.
The U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has adopted a rule banning the bulk shipment of lithium-ion batteries on all international passenger jets and mandates that batteries on cargo jets be charged no more than 30 percent to reduce the risk of a fire.
The agency supported the measure because lithium-ion battery explosions and fires are becoming alarmingly frequent aboard passenger airplanes, and fires caused by these volatile batteries are very difficult to extinguish. Airline safety experts agree that it’s better that battery malfunctions occur in the airplane’s cabin than in its cargo hold, which is not accessible in-flight.
Mr. Strickland pointed out that the ban does not prevent terrorists from carrying out their schemes, which is probably why the European Union declined to implement a ban. Would-be terrorists could still pack an explosive or pick a different itinerary.
The ban also left Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Airlines and multiple other corporations, suspicious about the ban’s motives.
“Airlines just have to do what they are told and we just have to hope that people who make up these rules have good reasons to do so because the rules that were laid down by the American government on a number of airlines yesterday were slightly strange in that they only affected foreign airlines they didn’t affect American airlines,” Mr. Branson told Squawk Box Europe.
“I just wondered whether there might be more to it than met the eye,” he added.
According to CNBC, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents most of the world’s major airlines, also indicated the electronics ban may not have been thought through before being implemented.
“Safety and security are the top priority of everyone involved in aviation,” the IATA said Tuesday. “Airlines comply with government requirements and they can do this most effectively when measures are well coordinated.”