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FAA Reconsiders Laptops in Luggage

September 19th, 2017 by Howard Skolnik

Filed under: DOT/UN, HazMat, Industry News, Safety, Skolnik Newsletter

As a result of recent security measures which involved the potential of prohibiting the carriage of Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) larger than a cellphone or smartphone in the cabin on flights from certain points of departure into the U.S.; one option was for passengers to place their large PEDs into their checked baggage if they wanted to transport them on these flights. This option would have created an unexpected increase in the number of lithium battery-powered devices in the cargo compartment of passenger aircraft. It was noted that there was little research data available on the behavior, effects and risks associated with PEDs being placed in a passenger’s checked baggage. Except for loose batteries and e-cigarettes in checked baggage, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not have significant incident data on passenger PEDs in checked baggage. To address the lack of sufficient research data on the behavior and effects of a large number of PEDs placed in the cargo hold on passenger aircraft, the Fire Safety Branch at the FAA Technical Center conducted tests to assess the potential hazards from the carriage of laptop computers and other large PEDs in checked baggage. Included was research to identify possible risk mitigation options. The objectives of the testing were to: 1) Determine the relative effectiveness of the cargo compartment Halon 1301 fire suppression system against the potential fire scenarios involving devices containing lithium batteries now carried as checked baggage; and 2) Determine whether there are potential mitigation options, such as the use of enhanced packaging to contain flames and gas from spreading outside a package.

The specific tests reflect cargo compartment loading procedures in use by air carriers affected by the security policy. Discussion: The FAA Tech Center has conducted tests utilizing fully charged laptop computers inside suitcases. The suitcases were all soft sided but varied in the density and types of items inside, as well as, the construction of the outer case. A heater was placed against a lithium ion cell in the battery of a laptop to force it into thermal runaway. The results of this test condition yielded the most troubling results. As a result of this, it was concluded that if a PED is packed in a suitcase with permitted hazardous materials and a thermal runaway event occurs, there is the potential for the resulting event to exceed the capabilities of the airplane to cope with it. Although most consumer PEDs (including but not limited to cell phones, smart phones, personal digital assistants (PDA) devices, electronic games, tablets, laptop computers, cameras, camcorders, watches, calculators) containing batteries are allowed in carry-on and checked baggage, the FAA believes that there is a very low frequency of lithium battery-powered devices being voluntarily transported in checked baggage. The FAA’s belief is largely based on the understanding that most passengers prefer keeping their devices on their persons to use, during flight or to prevent loss or theft in transit. With regard to the safety risk posed by PEDs, the ICAO Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air (the Technical Instructions) recommend that these devices be carried in the cabin on the basis that, should a PED initiate a fire, the cabin crew can expeditiously identify the incident, take appropriate firefighting action, and monitor the device for possible re-ignition.

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