eXtensions - Thursday 11 May 2017

Cassandra: Airline Laptop Risks and Alternative Solutions

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


The USA then UK rolled out bans in certain situations as carry-on luggage in March this year. This is now rumoured to be about to expand to all airlines serving the USA. A total ban could be not long coming. The threats covered appear real, but the cure may be worse than the disease with the notorious risks that come from storage of Li-ion batteries. Airlines need to seek out alternatives to the imminent and expected expansion of such bans.

The Problem

There were some press reports earlier today (Business Insider) suggesting that the USA Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is considering changing rules recently introduced for journeys from certain Middle-eastern airports concerning carrying laptops as carry-on devices. Under those rules, laptops (and tablet computers) need to be transported in the hold, where they are not accessible. The reasons for this are actually sound: bomb makers had managed to insert into batteries an explosive device powerful enough to bring down an airplane (Clive Irving, The Daily Beast), but execution and expansion may need some rethinking.

When the ban was first announced there was considerable confusion, and as it is expanded this is unlikely to decrease, at least for the time being. Although it is based on legitimate security concerns, the inconvenience that passengers face has caused anger which airline staff have to face. That Daily Beast report mentions that there have already been several unexpected fires caused mainly by laptop computers. The report also outlines the explosive device used in a laptop on the A320 to Somalia.

A student project, not a terrorist plot

The potential for expansion is considerable. If the intention is terrorism, banning such devices only on flights to or from the USA (or UK - they also have a ban) would only make flights to other destinations more attractive to terrorists. Regrettably, sooner or later, authorities may will consider a total ban on such devices inside all aircraft cabins.

The effects on airlines and their passengers will be considerable, particularly for those who use the time in the air to work with fewer distractions, even if internet access is now available on many flights. This of course may be good for some people and many will still be able to continue basic tasks on smartphones; but how soon before these are also included, and what about cameras: most of these are electronic these days as well.

Even as the ban works currently, many of those turning up at airports may have to repack cases, adding to the inconvenience of the check-in and perhaps leading to a reduced number of those flying: why bother? Adding phones and other small devices to any list of no-carry items would be too inconvenient for many travellers. This is a time of economic risk for airlines anyway and they are trying to pare costs. Fewer seats filled would lead to lower profits, or losses in some cases. The airlines need to confront the situation.

The Solutions 1

If users are told well in advance, other arrangements can be made, including packing these devices in cases. This is problematic for many people as certain airlines or airports have bad reputations when it comes to crime; and even DHS agents have been charged with theft in the past.Try "luggage theft at airports" in a Google search.

Some airlines may spring surprises, and while the initial announcements concerning travellers to the UK outlined "Any electronic device larger than 16cm by 9.3cm by 1.5cm" (Metro) some sources also suggest that cameras are included. Many portable hard disks are smaller than the specified size, so could be carried.

The intention is to protect travellers from an explosive device set off in the cabin. Attackers have apparently managed to include enough explosive material in the batteries to put a plane at risk. An interesting Tweet came from Glenn Fleishman) who wrote, "What if the terrorist plan to use laptops to blow up planes was to fool US govt into requiring they're all crammed into the baggage hold?"


This is a valid comment and, if several devices are set off simultaneously, by electronic means (timers are less accurate) the combined force could be more catastrophic than a single explosion in a wider cabin area where some force would be absorbed, although there would be more injuries.

Moving devices to the luggage hold may do nothing to diminish the risk and may also increase dangers from devices not intended as bombs because of the nature of the standard lithium-ion battery: the type that almost all devices use these days.

In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned that there is a risk of catastrophic aircraft loss if a Li-ion battery fire or explosion occurs in the cargo hold since existing fire suppression systems cannot control such a fire (Larsson, Andersson, Mellander) [My italics]

For the last couple of years airlines have had restrictions on carrying Li-ion batteries. These need separate packing and the devices must be shut down. I always wrap separate batteries to isolate them reducing the risk of heat generation. It is when the heat builds up that there is thermal runaway . If devices catch fire in the cabin, sooner or later someone would notice, although runaway fires from Li-ion batteries need careful management.


The Solutions 2

Usual safety recommendations such as moving the device away from flammable materials and placing it on a non-combustible surface (BU-304a) will not work in an aircraft. There are other suggestions (Water-based products or Halon), but these may be insufficient in the case of the thermal runaway, which if undetected will have serious consequences. This advice also contradicts the comments about containment in the Larsson, Andersson, Mellander article, above.

Despite the information from the airlines, packing all such devices in cases before a trip is not the answer and may increase risk. Rather than encourage passengers to pack their devices before boarding, airlines need to consider a separate service so that all such items are stored in a separate container. Some airlines, such as Emirates are beginning to bring in a special handling service allowing use of laptops and tablets until just before boarding. This needs expanding and refining in the light of risks from Li-ion batteries. A dedicated and secure container mahy be one short-term answer to such problems.

A container would need to be placed in the hold but physically supervised at frequent intervals by airline staff. There should also be sensors (heat, chemicals, smoke) that would give an early warning of potential problems that might not be seen (smoke) by a physical inspection.

This could have several advantages:

  • Better security
  • Low theft risk
  • Recording of passenger name, connecting this with specific device(s)
  • Early detection of problems that might be solved without an extreme result
  • Customer confidence

Such a container might be strengthened to contain some force, while in extreme situations (a future consideration), it might also be possible to eject the container, although that might cause a public relations nightmare; but no more so than a lost aircraft.



The risk to passengers from terrorist activities that use computers or tablet devices as delivery systems appears real, but the over-reaction may do little to minimize such risks, while potentially increasing danger from spontaneous fires that some Li-ion batteries could be subject to. Placing all such devices in the hold of an aircraft, in passenger's luggage, heightens that risk.

Better screening and examination of computing devices as passengers book in, while slowing down the process, could increase safety, along with better screening of travellers. This has already been a feature of air travel in the USA for a while, but with mixed results. If laptops and like devices are to be separated from their owners, the airlines need to provide suitable storage that ensures the security from theft of any device and properly monitors devices while they are in the air.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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