The US Federal Aviation Administration wants the world's airlines to stop letting passengers put large electronic devices like laptops in checked bags on international flights. The proposal, which will no doubt upset some frequent travellers, will be considered by the United Nations in the coming weeks.
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The FAA is concerned about the lithium-ion batteries that are common in electronic devices like laptops. Tests conducted by the agency have concluded that when large electronics overheat in luggage they run the risk of combustion when packed with aerosol canisters like hairspray and dry shampoo. Depending on the type of plane, the potential for explosion becomes a danger to the entire aircraft.
The findings are detailed in a paper published online last month, where the agency explains in detail that the fire suppression systems in some modern aeroplanes are no match against the kinds of explosions that the FAA tested for.
The FAA believes that the only reason there haven't been more explosive incidents from electronic devices in checked baggage is simply because most people take their laptops and other devices larger than a smartphone in their carry-on.
The agency conducted 10 tests, with four that included potentially explosive materials in addition to the laptop, including a bottle of dry shampoo, a 170g bottle of nail polish remover, a 56g bottle of hand sanitiser, and a 450g bottle of 70 per cent ethyl rubbing alcohol. All caused fires, but only the one with the dry shampoo exploded in a manner that couldn't be contained by fire suppression systems in the aircraft and engulfed the luggage compartment within just 40 seconds.
The FAA paper doesn't address whether there should be a domestic ban, but sees this as a global issue and hopes to set a worldwide standard through the UN, since people so commonly hop on connecting flights. The UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation will be discussing the issue during meetings next week.
If the committee accepts the findings of the FAA paper the proposal would still have to be adopted individually by participating countries.
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According to the Associated Press, the largest aeroplane manufacturers as well as the FAA's counterpart in Europe all agree with the conclusions of the paper. The US has previously toyed with the idea of banning all laptops in the cabin on all planes for international flights travelling to the US.
The recommendations may be confusing for passengers who remember the laptop ban from earlier this year that was implemented by the US Department of Homeland Security against flights from 10 different Middle Eastern countries. Those flights didn't allow passengers to carry large electronic devices in the cabin. That ban was allegedly in place because of credible threats to commercial aircraft by terrorist organisations.
US president Trump reportedly shared that sensitive intelligence in the Oval Office with Russian diplomats. The ban was lifted in July after the 10 airports that were impacted reportedly made security improvements.
The Associated Press notes that three cargo jets have been destroyed since 2006 in fires related to battery explosions. Four pilots have died, though it has yet to cause a major incident on a passenger plane since that time.
The FAA's paper does explore alternatives to an outright ban on laptops in checked baggage, including allowing it to happen on the kinds of planes with the most advanced fire suppression systems, and asking passengers not to pack things like dry shampoo in the same bag as laptops. But the agency's final recommendation is to simply ban laptops outright from being stored in checked bags.
The paper acknowledges the lack of data beyond its own 10 tests and specifically says that it welcomes further analysis from the international community. But we'll have to see what the UN comes up with in the coming weeks.