These days, it can be hard to keep up with the exact protocol for bringing laptops on airplanes. Earlier this week the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) suggested a ban on packing laptops in checked bags. This recommendation feels rather contradictory for those who remember that last March the Department of Homeland Security imposed a ban on laptops in the cabins of planes coming into the U.S. from 10 Middle Eastern airports.
What’s the Problem?
That ban was made in an effort to prevent devices from being used as tools in an attack; it meant that many passengers put their laptops in checked bags instead of their carry-on bags. However, the ban was fully lifted in July, as the airports in the region took the necessary steps to improve security. The FFA ban, in contrast, focuses on preventing the risk of an accidental explosion, more so than on stopping the prospect of a terrorist attack.
What’s the Risk?
The FAA recommendation is based on tests the FFA conducted to see what would happen when lithium-ion battery laptops overheated next to various alcohol-based products.
During testing, four products were examined: nail polish remover, dry shampoo, hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol. A heater was placed against the laptop’s lithium-ion battery to force it into “thermal runaway,” a condition in which the battery’s temperature continually rises. Each testing product was strapped to the laptop while it over heated. In each test the result was fire; but the aerosol can of dry shampoo was the only test in which an explosion occurred that would be too strong for an airplane’s fire suppressant systems to contain. When the dry shampoo was strapped to the overheated lithium-ion battery laptop, an explosion occurred in 40 seconds, which is too quickly for the fire suppression systems on board to guard against.
The FAA believes that the only reason more explosions haven’t occurred thus far is because most passengers already take their laptops and large electronic devices onboard in their carry-on bags.
What are the Next Steps?
What does this proposed ban mean for U.S. travelers? The FAA paper doesn’t address whether there should be a domestic ban, but rather, sees this as a global issue. The goal is to set a worldwide standard through the UN, especially since people so commonly hop on connecting flights in and out of the US.
The U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization 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.
What Can You Do?
While legislation won’t be affective for a while, you might want to think twice before packing your laptop and your dry shampoo or hairspray in your checked bag. Consider buying dry shampoo and/or hairspray once you’ve reached your destination, in a travel size from the nearest drug store.
For those with separate work and personal laptops, taking both in a carry-on can be challenging. Consider the type of batteries your laptop(s) use and prioritize accordingly.
Are There Alternatives?
Aside from an outright ban, the FAA has recommended allowing checked laptops on aircrafts with the most advanced fire suppressant systems, as well as asking passengers not to pack aerosol cans of hairspray or dry shampoo. The FAA is welcoming alternative analysis from other countries, acknowledging that their ten tests may not be enough data to allow a ban on checking all laptops without more sufficient research.