Does Security Trump Safety In DHS Electronics Ban?

WASHINGTON—Travelers from 10 Middle Eastern and African airports flying to the U.S. under a new Homeland Security Department (DHS) electronics ban could see an increased risk from lithium battery-ignited fires in the cargo holds of their aircraft, according to two battery and aircraft safety experts.

The security directive, which goes into effect March 25, requires passengers on nine carriers with nonstop flights to the U.S. from specified airports—eight in the Middle East and two in North Africa—to check personal electronic devices larger than a mobile phone. The ban requires putting laptops; tablets; e-readers; cameras; portable DVD players; larger electronic gaming units; and travel printers and scanners into cargo holds.

While implemented for security reasons (The DHS said “evaluated evidence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation, including transportation hubs”), the ban likely could have safety implications for passengers on those flights, given that many of the batteries that power consumer devices use lithium chemistry.

“I was disheartened to read the way DHS is going about this,” said John Cox, a battery safety expert and president of Safety Operating Systems. “We’re going to introduce into the cargo hold a significant number of lithium-ion batteries that are packed with luggage, which acts as an insulator.”

The move is problematic on at least two fronts, Cox explained:

  • The insulation can accelerate a temperature rise that can cause a faulty battery to transition into thermal runaway, a high temperature condition that ignites other batteries, materials in the luggage (and fire hold) and generates explosive hydrogen gas.
  • The halon fire-extinguishing agent in cargo holds will not put out a lithium-ion battery fire.

Another lithium-battery safety expert, who was not authorized to speak to the press, agreed that there is an increased risk of having more batteries in the cargo hold, but said he was not able to quantify the increased risk.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which considers the safe shipment of hazardous materials one of its top priorities, continues to analyze the ban, noting that DHS actions must be “coordinated with other government agencies” and parts of industry to avoid possible unintended consequences.

“ALPA has been in touch with officials at the DHS and the FAA to better understand what, if any, impacts these new security protocols may have on our members and the flying public,” a spokeswoman said. She added: “Aviation continues to be a target of terrorist activity, which is why ALPA has worked with authorities around the world to help safeguard air transport.”

The FAA’s Office of Security and Hazardous Materials Safety’s most recent listing of lithium-battery incidents, published in December, lists 138 events of smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosions in cargo or carry-on baggage in the air and at airports since 1991.

In 2016, the FAA reported five events specifically for laptops, all of which were in the cabin. Included was a Dec. 22 incident in which flames came from a laptop in an overhead bin on a Delta Air Lines flight from Honolulu to Atlanta. Flight at tendants used three halon extinguishers and a containment bag in a cooler with ice to put out the fire. Delta later replaced the overhead bin.

While the FAA already allows laptops and similar devices to be shipped in cargo holds, there is a safety benefit to taking the devices on board: If a battery fire were to break out, flight attendants could isolate an errant device and extinguish the fire. In the cargo hold, no such intervention is possible.

Cox said that even with a device turned off, there is a change that a “spontaneous thermal runaway event” could occur—a rare but possible scenario. He said the ban will boost the number of devices placed in cargo holds, a location that passengers would not likely ship their high-value items like laptops. The risks are higher if the devices were to be left energized.

“I’ve worked with lithium batteries a long time,” Cox said. “I would hope that the risk analysis was done appropriately.”

In an email response to Aviation Daily, the DHS said it “coordinated closely with the FAA and provided an information bulletin to the air carriers regarding the appropriate handling of electronics, including lithium batteries.” However, since the banned items are already allowed in cargo holds, the FAA’s primary concern was giving airlines impacted by the ban new guidance on how laptops and other electronics should be packed, particularly when checked at the gate.