The International Civil Aviation Organization is considering banning large, personal electronic devices (PEDs) from checked luggage, citing potential for serious fire.

The proposed ban is backed by research from the U.S. government’s  Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which conducted a series of tests to assess the potential hazards caused by laptop computers and other large PEDs in thermal runaway (a situation in which the battery’s temperature continues to rise) in checked baggage. Ten tests were carried out, based on a fully-charged laptop inside a suitcase. The suitcases varied in construction and 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  laptop battery to force it  into thermal runaway.

For the  first five tests, the  suitcases were  filled with clothes, shoes, etc., but no other currently-permitted dangerous goods. In four of those tests, the fire was contained and eventually self-extinguished, and the suitcases were not breached. In one test, conducted without the Halon fire suppression system, the resulting fire burned out of the suitcase and fully consumed it; in this test, the battery burned a hole in the suitcase, which may have allowed oxygen to enter to fuel the fire.

A test of this same scenario was also conducted with an eight-ounce aerosol can of dry shampoo strapped to the laptop battery and added to the suitcase contents. The dry shampoo is currently permitted to be carried  in checked baggage.  This test yielded troubling results.  Fire was observed almost immediately after thermal runaway was initiated. The fire rapidly grew, and within 40 seconds, the aerosol can exploded with the resulting fire rapidly consuming the bag and its contents. This test showed that the fire suppression system could not dispense Halon quickly enough to suppress the fire and  prevent the explosion.

Four additional tests were conducted using a 6 oz. bottle of nail polish remover, 2 oz. bottle of hand sanitiser and a 16 oz. bottle of 70% ethyl rubbing alcohol. Three of those tests resulted in the can or bottle containing the dangerous goods bursting, leading to a large fire. In only one test was the fire contained within the case.

As a result of this, it was concluded that if a PED is packed in a suitcase with an aerosol can and a thermal runaway event occurs, there is the potential for the can to explode. The explosion itself may or may not be strong enough to  structurally damage the aircraft, but in  a Class C cargo compartment it will most likely compromise the Halon fire suppression system by dislodging blow panels or cargo liners, rendering the compartment unable to contain the Halon. The fire suppression system of the aircraft is then compromised, which could lead to the loss  of the aircraft.

The discussion paper adds that ‘Globally, there are aircraft in the commercial fleet that do not have the same level of cargo fire suppression in the cargo hold, which places passengers in greater  jeopardy if a PED catches fire in  checked baggage. Additionally, even if  individual operators voluntarily implemented policies to forbid the carriage of large PEDs in checked baggage, the risk associated with large PEDs in checked baggage could be transferred to their flights from the  aircraft during interlining of  passengers and baggage””and  without the  operators’ knowledge.’

According to Associated Press: Batteries packed with other permitted items such as rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, and nail polish remover also caused large fires. These fires can burn up to 1,100 °F (594 °C), close to the melting point of aircraft aluminum, and are responsible for 3 cargo jet crashes and 4 pilot deaths since 2006.

A preliminary recommendation from the Dangerous Goods Panel working group is to allow devices larger than a cell phone or smartphone containing lithium metal or lithium ion batteries (laptops, cameras, smartphones, tablets, etc.) to be transported in carry-on baggage and not be placed in checked baggage unless approved by the  operator. Discussions are continuing this week.

It is difficult to say whether this recommendation, if implemented, would impact on the 7 kg limit most airlines impose on carry-on baggage but clearly, some allowances would be required for photographers (especially professionals) who often carry multiple cameras and batteries in addition to laptops.