air safety

Mar 22, 2017

Laptop ban confounds airlines, safety experts, risks causing air disasters

Banning laptops on successful ME airlines flying to America may have unintended and lethal consequences

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

File photo Lithium-ion fire UPS cargo plane

The risk that the Trump bans on larger electronic devices on selected airlines and from specified airports could kill planeloads of passengers now confront many carriers, but they don’t appear likely to directly affect Australian carriers.

The Australian government has just indicated it is not contemplating such bans for Qantas or Virgin Australia flights. The UK government has implemented similar but less extensive bans. At this early stage there is no sign that it would affect the Qantas flights to London that transit Dubai, but Qantas will clarify that situation if necessary.

The prime target of the bans appears to be the main Middle East hubs of Dubai (Emirates) Abu Dhabi (Etihad) and Doha (Qatar Airways) and their national carriers in terms of flights into the US.

What are the technical risks with the selective US and more recent UK bans on laptop use in cabins? Lithium-ion powered laptops and tablets can spontaneously ignite and burn fiercely.

If this happens inside a cabin the fires and fumes can be suppressed by flight attendants trained to isolate and quench such blazes.

There are many such incidents reported in recent years on safety databases, some of which could otherwise have ended in heavy loss of life.

In a cargo hold, despite the installed fire suppression systems, such successful intervention is problematical.

Uncontrolled lithium battery fires are already implicated or identified as the prime cause of cargo flight disasters.

This is the crux of the disbelief and bafflement of many airlines and safety authorities over the Trump policy, and the UK’s hasty ‘me too’ response.

Airlines already prohibit the carriage of passenger devices powered by lithium-ion batteries in checked baggage for this reason.

Why do the US and now UK bans directly contradict and undo life saving safety measures?

This analysis in the Washington Post says the bans have nothing to do with safety or anti-terrorism measures, but are a blatant attempt to injure Middle East carriers, starting with Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.

If so that comes with the risks of those airlines retaliating against Boeing. They hold the large majority of orders for the forthcoming Boeing 777-X family, and include the world’s largest customer for current model 777s in Emirates, and Etihad and Qatar are also large-scale users of 787 Dreamliners.

These bans may well prove to be a case of playing with fire, and with unintended consequences.

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26 thoughts on “Laptop ban confounds airlines, safety experts, risks causing air disasters

  1. Dan Dair

    Do you think the ME3 would be able to manage with the biggest A350’s instead of the B777-X.?

    It would be something of a massive vote-loser in Washington state & presumably Wall Street,
    if these B777 orders were lost because of an act of revenge by the ME3,
    especially if they made it clear that the reason for their decision was DJT’s pre-emptive attempt to get his retaliation in first.!!!

  2. Ben Sandilands

    It may be a tad early to speculate in detail on this, but I don’t think there is room to doubt that the most affected airlines will have all of their possible options in mind as this issue rolls on. If this set of restrictions combines with a general slowing of passenger activity, as already reported in some markets, it might also be an opportunity for those with large orders to cut them back or indefinitely defer. That could harm Airbus as much as Boeing.

    1. Dan Dair

      I don’t actually have any idea whether US carriers operate significant numbers of flights (or any at all) into the ME3 hubs.
      However, if they do & since the ME3 are all effectively state-owned, it’s not a big stretch to imagine that the respective governments or aviation bodies, might ‘conjure-up’ reasons to make the US carriers lives a little more interesting.?

      1. FlyLo

        Dan Dair,
        I understand that no US airlines operate direct flights to the USA from any of the 10 airports in the 8 countries affected by ban from carrying large electronic devices.

        I also understand that the UK ban does not include flights originating in Doha, Qatar or Abu Dhabi or Dubai in the UAE so direct Etihad, Qatar or Emirates flights to the UK will not be affected by the ban. This also means that Qantas flights to London via Dubai will also not be affected by the ban.

        1. Xoanon

          The fact the UK ban exempts Dubai and Abu Dhabi is a pretty obvious clue that this whole thing is politically motivated. Presumably the Brits judged that extending the ban to those ports would affect too many people and cause widespread havoc.

          1. Dan Dair

            Or that the baggage scanning & control in the ME3 hubs actually does acheive a satisfactory standard.?

  3. comet

    Here’s a recent incident, reported in the Aviation Herald:
    Lithium battery erupted in an overhead locker. Crew followed correct procedures and put it out.

    So Trump would have all that lithium placed in the cargo hold.

    He’s an unhinged president, with an obsessional dislike of the Middle East. Bye bye Boeing. We always knew Boeing would fare badly under Trump.

  4. Jackson Harding

    Even the stated reason appears to not stack up; a fear that terrorists may smuggle explosive devices on board inside them. So the explosive device explodes in the hold and not the cabin. Same net result.

  5. Terry B

    Ben, it appears that the UK ban applies to all carriers, including British airways and Easyjet etc., and six countries, which does not include the ME3.

  6. Socrates

    If you were a cynic you might note that Washington state voted firmly democrat, so I can’t see the very polarised White House or Congress caring too much about job losses in Boeing.

  7. ggm

    I don’t doubt that its possible this was a trade-war act: there is prior history of the US state department(s) applying cold-war restrictions to influence sales outcomes, c/f ROLM and PBX sales to russia against UK/European telco equipment suppliers (this was in the 1980s)

    But, I also don’t have a problem believing there is specific intelligence about a risk/threat here. It took about 20 seconds to theorize a model where enough lithium cells ignited together, makes a problem that the in-cabin crew cannot contain simply, and which is hot, intense, and persists for enough time to do significant damage. Single phone crushed in a powered chair? Solvable problem. Equally, collect all the phones and cause them to ignite? significant problem. So even under this scenario, the actions look like security pantomime.

  8. reeves35

    Short of making passengers nervous, I am at a loss what this ban will achieve.
    It seems obvious that unless every location adopted a global ban on such devices, it would be an easy restriction to get around. For example, if a terrorist wanted to carry out this type of attack, what stops them leaving their home country and flying to say Amsterdam, and then joining a US bound flight, laptop in carry-on?

    Likewise the real terrorists are not stupid, the mules they use as suicide bombers are but that is beside the point. With modern cellular systems, a bomb in the hold could be detonated by a passenger calling the device on their mobile phone.

    If the threat is real, this isn’t going to make us any safer, just a lot more scared.

    1. johnb78

      *In principle*, if the issue is booby-trapped laptops that for some reason need to be in the cabin for the attack to work, then the point would be that Amsterdam has far better security than Cairo or Riyadh – you can’t just bribe your way through the scanner or bypass it because your dad’s a prince. Again, this doesn’t make sense of the US decision to include the ME3 terminals in the ban.

  9. Ben Sandilands

    Any travel agent could circumvent these selective bans in about three minutes. They are porous, stupid, and easily evaded, as well as threatening lives by consigning potentially dangerous batteries to checked luggage.

  10. johnb78

    It’s pretty clear that there are two different things going here:
    1) some kind of genuine threat which affects all airlines operating out of airports with poor security in countries known to have problems with terrorist cells (hence the UK ban, which focuses on these places and doesn’t provide UK carriers with any commercial advantage).
    2) an extremely crude effort by the Trump administration to use whatever the threat in 1 is to stuff the ME3 – hence its extension of the ban to the ME3’s (extremely secure) hubs and its exemption of US carriers despite the fact that they use the same security channels.
    Quite what the threat in 1 is (and why the thread model is reduced by laptops being in the hold) is another question – like everyone else, I’m extremely sceptical, but it does seem like there’s *something* underlying it.

    1. ghostwhowalksnz

      No US flag carriers fly from the ME3 hubs to US direct

      1. comet

        That in itself is extraordinary.

        That no US carrier flies to Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Doha.

  11. comet

    Why hide a nefarious device inside a laptop? Or a camera?

    A security guard at the airport could simply ask the owner to switch it on to prove it works.

    A modern SLR camera (eg Canon, Nikon etc) is a tightly packed device. No criminal is going to be able to stuff it with another device and still have the camera work. Testing the device at the security desk would be a quicker procedure than rechecking the item into luggage.

    But what about professional video cameras? Large shoulder mount things. The lithium battery that hangs off the rear of these cameras is larger than most SLR camera bodies. Previously these huge lithium power packs had to be carried as hand luggage. Now they go to the cargo hold.

    It’s nonsensical madness to think a camera itself would hide another device inside it. It’s not going to happen. But the ME3 airlines are going to lose a lot of business over this issue.

    1. Dan Dair

      I wonder if the ME3 could provide ‘free-loans’ of laptops or cheap laptop-hire for flights to the USA & other airlines for flights to US & UK.
      There is never a suggestion that the on-board entertainment-systems are compromised, so presumably, if the laptop belongs to Emirates (for example) & is only ever used on-board the Emirates aircraft there’s not going to be an issue.?
      The ME3 aren’t short of a couple of bucks, so it’s not too big a stretch to imagine they’d send someone down to the shops & come back with a couple of lorry-loads of laptops to stick onto their planes.
      All the customer has to do is bring their flashdrive/memory stick or a lead to connect to their phone & they’re off & doing.?
      Staff check them out & check them back in again.
      They go into a cart in the accessible-hold somewhere & are taken off the plane after each flight, to be recharged & have the hard drive ‘super-cleaned’. As they come off a replacement cart of laptops is brought on-board.
      Perhaps the website for ‘banned’ airlines could include this ‘service’ on their booking pages, so that the airlines already have a ‘heads-up’ about roughly how many they’ll need to provide. Obviously, not everyone will want one.!
      Just a thought.?

  12. nonscenic

    If this latest security feature is extended more globally then airlines that use ipads or similar for in flight entertainment instead of in seat systems will be up for costs and changes.
    One has to balance security and amenity if flying is going to be a commercial proposition in the future. If security concerns continue future passengers will be flying naked and purchasing clothes on arrival.

  13. ghostwhowalksnz

    Is there an ‘exemption’ for US airlines ? Doesnt make sense as there are no US airlines that fly those routes.

  14. Dan Dair

    I read a report on the news website, that two men have just been convicted of importing cocaine.
    These men worked as & used their position as Heathrow airport Baggage Handlers, to facilitate their crimes.
    Is the UK the-pot-calling-the-kettle….?

  15. michael r james

    By coincidence last week new regulations on shipping of lithium ion batteries were being rushed thru the FAA to try to beat the Trump executive order sent out to all government agencies to stop all new regulations (ie. in their mindless fatwa against red tape and/or anything initiated under Obama). But apparently it didn’t make it in time and is now in limbo. The airlines actually want it as I suppose it has implications for them in terms of liability and what they in turn can impose on the freight handling companies etc.

    On PBS-Newshour today (ie. Tuesday in US) they interviewed the guy who was director of Counter-terrorism who thought it was probably from intelligence that the terrorists had devised a new way to install serious-sized bomb in such devices. (Not to difficult to imagine: replace most of the battery with C4 leaving just enough battery to run the device for long enough for authentic start-up.) This is probably independent of the White House, ie. of Trump. But you never needed Trump to imagine this particular conspiracy, ie if directed against the ME3. Who knows? The real worry is whether this will be temporary or will it be adopted by all airlines.
    Of course another variant on the conspiracy theory is that the real purpose is to give access to the spooks to all those laptops in the baggage areas of US airports.

    1. comet

      That theory makes no sense.

      If the battery of a camera is the problem – not the camera itself, then why put the camera in the cargo hold? And what do they do with the battery?

      A battery level meter and/or an xray scan of the battery​ would reveal if it had been filled with a non-battery material.

      This is all complete madness.

      1. michael r james

        Not sure what theory you are saying makes no sense.
        I agree the “muslim laptop” ban is mostly madness. If this is Trump-inspired then it will produce a trade-war with unintended consequences like his touted tariff-wars etc. As his policies actually get wheeled out, eg. Healthcare, Trump is meeting his own wall: reality.

        In my first post I should have said that the new regulations were about commercial shipments of batteries on passenger flights (I believe they are currently completely banned on pax flights).

        I think you’re wrong about it being easy to detect a lithium battery replaced with C4 or similar (which can be molded into any shape and would look almost identical in xray to the electrode-jelly of batteries).

        Speaking of laptops blowing up, is it just me and my 6-year old MBP, but Crikey is just about the worst news site with the page constantly jerking up and down as it opens ads or tries to run vids, and consumes huge resources (probably trying to run Adobe Flash–I suppose an old version since I can no longer update anything with my “old” OS, sigh.). It looks like it is partly Crikey’s attempt to make it compatible with mobiles? Of course I blame Millennials!

  16. Dan Dair

    I had a conversation with someone in England yesterday which went along the lines of;
    “Turkey & Egypt aren’t what we’d consider genuine long haul.
    You might go for a weekend away in the sunshine.
    You might just take hand luggage for your weekend……
    So, you can take your laptop out with you,
    ………but you can’t bring it back home.!!!!!!”

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