ICAO is considering amending its dangerous goods instructions to largely ban large personal electronic devices (PEDs) from checked baggage after US FAA’s Fire Safety Branch reported “troubling” results from tests conducted on potential fire risks to commercial aircraft from laptops in checked baggage.
Results of FAA’s testing, conducted over the summer and previously made public in an “Information for Operators” bulletin issued by the agency in July, were included in a report released during a meeting of ICAO’s Dangerous Goods Panel (DGP) that concluded Oct. 27 in Montreal.
The FAA test results have led to the drafting of language by DGP that would amend ICAO’s dangerous goods instructions to ban large PEDs from checked baggage.
Exceptions would include “operator approval for the unique passenger circumstances that may arise for the carriage of PEDs larger than a cell/smartphone in checked baggage” and the placement of large PEDs in checked baggage with “lithium battery(ies) … removed from the device and stowed in the cabin,” according to the DGP report.
Otherwise, there would be little leeway—FAA and DGP believe crafting detailed rules that would give individual passengers or airlines discretion could too easily lead to unnecessary fire risk. Also, an airline choosing to ban large PEDs from checked baggage could unknowingly carry them in passenger baggage cargo holds if bags originally checked with another airline are transferred on codeshare or interline flights.
“As such, requiring the large PEDs to be carried only in the cabin is the simplest, most effective and most efficient option for addressing this identified safety risk,” the DGP report stated.
The FAA tests were initiated following the “laptop ban” issued in March by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which for four months prohibited passengers flying nonstop to the US from 10 airports in the Middle East and Africa from carrying large PEDs aboard aircraft. This meant more laptops were being checked, and DGP realized there was little data available on the fire risks large PEDs in checked baggage posed. So FAA’s Fire Safety Branch agreed to conduct tests on fully charged laptop computers inside suitcases.
“The suitcases varied in construction and in the density and types of items inside, as well as the construction of the outer case,” the DGP report stated. “A heater was placed against a lithium ion cell in the battery of a laptop 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 … the resulting fire burned out of the suitcase and fully consumed it.”
Those test results did not raise significant alarm, but FAA also conducted a test “of this same scenario” in which “an eight-ounce aerosol can of dry shampoo [was] strapped to the laptop battery and added to the suitcase contents,” the DGP report explained, noting that “dry shampoo is currently permitted to be carried in checked baggage.”
The test including the shampoo “yielded the most troubling result,” the DGP report stated. “Fire was observed almost immediately after thermal runaway was initiated. The fire rapidly grew, and within 40 seconds, the aerosol can of shampoo exploded with the resulting fire rapidly consuming the bag and its contents. This test showed that, given the rapid progression of the fire, a Halon fire suppression system cannot dispense Halon quickly enough to reach a sufficient concentration to suppress the fire and prevent the explosion.”
FAA then conducted four additional tests in which the dry shampoo remained and other items were added to the suitcases, including nail polish remover, hand sanitizer and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. “Three of those tests resulted in the can or bottle containing the dangerous goods bursting, leading to a large fire,” the DGP report stated. “In only one test was the fire contained within the case.”
The DGP said the tests indicate “that large PEDs in checked baggage mixed with an aerosol can produce an explosion and fire that the aircraft cargo fire suppression system … may not be able to safely manage. 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.”
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) praised the proposed ban on large PEDs in checked baggage. “ALPA has long called for international organizations to address the significant hazards associated with the safe transport of lithium batteries on passenger and cargo aircraft,” ALPA president Tim Canoll said in a statement. “We commend the FAA for their thoroughness in demonstrating the risks these batteries present when unmonitored and call on ICAO to implement these recommendations.”