An aviation safety group funded by the airline industry is speaking out against the Trump Administration’s recent order barring laptops and other electronics from the cabins of certain international commercial flights, warning that the directive introduces another potentially catastrophic risk of its own: the prospect of an explosion or fire in the cargo hold.
In an April 7 statement, the non-profit Flight Safety Foundation says the order prohibiting personal electronic devices (PEDs) larger than a smartphone in the passenger cabins of non-stop flights headed to the U.S. from 10 Middle Eastern airports essentially swaps out one potential threat for another very real threat – that of a lithium-ion battery explosion or fire in the inaccessible cargo area.
“The concern … is that there have been occasions when the lithium batteries in PEDs have suffered thermal runaway and caught fire,” the group said. “To mitigate this risk, cabin crew have been trained in how to manage these situations. With the transport of PEDs on certain flights now restricted to the cargo hold, along with other potentially flammable items within checked-in baggage, a known and managed risk has effectively been transferred to another part of the aircraft where, should thermal runaway occur, it is rendered inaccessible to cabin crew.”
Trump issued the directive based on intelligence indicating certain terror groups were working on disguising bombs as rechargeable batteries in laptops, tablets, and other electronics.
The Flight Safety Foundation acknowledges that the March 21 ban includes some exceptions, but says the new requirement is likely to significantly increase the number of PEDs carried in cargo holds on the affected flights.
U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records logged 31 cases in 2016 alone in which lithium-ion batteries either caught fire or smoldered on airline flights. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has determined lithium-ion batteries were at least a contributing factor in the three cargo aircraft fires, two of which resulted in fatalities.
Last year, the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization determined that lithium-ion batteries were too volatile and risky to be transported in bulk on passenger flights. That determination came after Boeing and Airbus issued advisories warning airlines that existing fire suppression systems were inadequate to control or extinguish lithium fires, which burn intensely hot and can reignite even after they’re extinguished.
John Cox, a safety consultant with professional knowledge of aircraft fires, told Bloomberg that although the terrorism is a valid threat, U.S. officials should perform a risk analysis and take steps to reduce the risk of lithium battery fires.
“If they are in the cargo hold and one overheats and goes into thermal runaway, you can’t deal with it,” Mr. Cox told Bloomberg.