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US urges worldwide ban on laptops in checked-in luggage on aircraft

22 October 2017

A US government regulator has asked airlines to ban large electronic devices such as laptops from checked-in luggage because of the potential for a catastrophic fire. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) asked the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to introduce a ban after tests identified particular dangers in overheating rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

When a laptop battery overheats in proximity to an aerosol spray can, the FAA said, it could cause an explosion capable of disabling an airliner’s fire suppression system leading to the loss of the aircraft.

The FAA conducted 10 tests involving a fully charged laptop packed in a suitcase. A heater was placed against the laptop’s battery to force it into “thermal runaway,” a condition in which the battery’s temperature continually rises.

In one test, an 8-ounce aerosol can of dry shampoo —which is permitted in checked baggage — was strapped to the laptop. There was a fire almost immediately and it grew rapidly. The aerosol can exploded within 40 seconds.

The test showed that because of the rapid progression of the fire, Halon gas fire suppressant systems used in airline cargo compartments would be unable to put out the fire before there was an explosion, the FAA said. The explosion might not be strong enough to structurally damage the plane, but it could damage the cargo compartment and allow the Halon to escape, the agency said. Then there would be nothing to prevent the fire from spreading.

Other tests of laptop batteries packed with potentially dangerous consumer goods that are permitted in checked baggage such as nail polish remover also resulted in large fires, although no explosions.

The FAA said the European Safety Agency, European aircraft manufacturer Airbus, the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Association, and the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Association, which represents aircraft makers, concurred in the recommendation.

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