The federal government is urging airlines to ban large electronic devices, such as laptops and cameras, from the checked luggage loaded onto their aircraft. The request is based largely on the potential for the device’s batteries, particularly rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, to catch fire or cause an explosion during flight, possibly leading to a catastrophic event.
As reported by the Chicago Tribune, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently filed a paper with a UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization asserting that tests show that if the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries in laptops overheat while in transit, and are in close proximity to aerosol spray cans, the heat can trigger an explosion that could disable the passenger plane’s fire suppression system. This would allow the fire to continue to burn which, according to the paper, could lead to “the loss of the aircraft.”
The FAA completed 10 tests where a fully-charged laptop was packed inside a suitcase, and a heater was placed near the device’s battery as a means of forcing it into “thermal runaway,” a state where the temperature of the battery rises continually.
One of the tests placed an eight-ounce aerosol can of dry shampoo, an item that is allowed to be placed in a person’s checked baggage, against the laptop. The dry shampoo was strapped into place to ensure it remained in close proximity to the battery.
Once the battery reached a critical temperature, a rapidly growing fire broke out. Within 40 seconds, the aerosol can exploded.
According to the FAA, the test demonstrated that, due to the fire’s rapid growth, standard Halon gas fire suppression systems found in the cargo compartments of aircraft are ill-equipped to put out the flames before an explosion occurred.
Additional tests were conducted using materials like hand sanitizer, nail polish remover, and rubbing alcohol in close proximity to the batteries. All of these experiments resulted in large fires but did not feature an explosion.
Based on the data, the FAA recommends in the paper that large electronic devices be banned from checked baggage unless prior approval from the airline is granted.
The FAA also asserts that their European counterpart, the European Safety Agency, as well as passenger aircraft manufacturer Airbus, the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Association, and the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Association all support the recommendation.
While specific recommendations regarding whether the rule should apply to domestic flights aren’t included in the paper, the FAA does point out the risk that baggage being transferred from one plane to another could allow a large electronic device into the cargo area of an aircraft without the airline’s knowledge.
The FAA does state that they believe most large electronic devices are typically brought into the cabin by passengers and not as likely to be stored in checked luggage.
Rechargeable lithium batteries are used in a variety of consumer products including laptops, cell phones, and cameras, and are favored by manufacturers as they allow more power to be stored in a smaller space. Batteries with defects or damage, as well as those exposed to excessive heat, do have the potential to self-ignite. The resulting fires can reach temperatures of up to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, nearing the melting point of aluminum, a material used in the construction of aircraft.
Since 2006, fires involving batteries in cargo jets have led to the deaths of four pilots and the destruction of three aircraft.