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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