Laptops and aviation security may no longer mix

It looks as if laptop computers and tablet devices may be the Achilles heel of commercial aviation anti-terrorism efforts.  Business travelers need their computers while in flight, especially on those intercontinental flights that can last ten or more hours.  Keep in mind that business travelers pay the highest fares, because they often can't plan ahead for deep discounts, and because they need to be able to change their plans at the last minute.  That's just for the coach travelers, paying full fares that are a multiple of the cheapest plan-ahead, non-refundable fares.

The front cabin travelers, whose tickets run well into the thousands on intercontinental flights, justify all that expense by claiming that they need the extra space to be able to work while in flight.  For most airlines, especially the intercontinental operations, the front of the cabin counts the most, while the coach tickets are more of an auxiliary source of revenue, one that varies a lot by seasonal supply and demand.

The business travelers in both cabins are by far the most important, most prized market of the major airlines.  And they are going to be very unhappy about the spread of bans on laptops in the cabins of airliners.

Laptops and tablets have been banned in March from the cabins of airliners departing for the U.S. from ten Middle Eastern and North African destinations, following a raid that showed that laptop battery-substitute bombs were available to terrorists.

There was much grumbling that this amounted to protectionism for the U.S., since the airlines most affected were the much feared Middle East 3: Emirates (Dubai), Etihad (Abu Dhabi), and the eponymous Qatar.  The ME3 have been gobbling up market share in global air travel to the great discomfort of the legacy carriers.  For a hypothetical business traveler from Bangalore to New York, a trip using the ME3 would mean extended idleness, while travel via European hubs, with their legacy carriers, would include the opportunity to work on a computer in flight.

But now, according to The Daily Beast:

The Department of Homeland Security plans to ban laptops in the cabins of all flights from Europe to the United States, European security officials told The Daily Beast. The announcement is expected Thursday.

DHS admits that the ban is under consideration but will not confirm anything more.  But if the laptop bomb technology is undetectable by airport security, then we can expect that the information and bomb-building capability will spread to Europe, which not so incidentally has just received hundreds of thousands of "refugees" from areas controlled by ISIS.  It would seem that a laptop ban on flights from Europe to the U.S. is ahead.

But bad as it would be for business travelers to lose access to their laptops while on board, that is nothing compared to the danger that laptops might have to be banned from the checked luggage as well.  And it turns out that those powerful lithium-ion batteries used by laptops can and do catch fire, even in airline cargo holds:

The FAA recorded 33 incidents in 2016 of personal electronic devices carried into cabins by passengers causing fire emergencies during flights, according to an FAA document reviewed by The Daily Beast. Of these, three were in laptops and two in tablets.

Two of the most serious were on Delta flights and both involved laptops.

On January 15, 2016 on a flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta fire broke out in a bag in an overhead bin shortly before landing. The smoke in the cabin became so overwhelming that when the flight reached the gate, passengers opened emergency exits over the wings and staff on the ramp helped them escape directly from the wings.

Flight attendants used halon fire suppressant extinguishers and water extinguishers to put out the fire, which had originated in two laptops.

On December 3, 2016 fire broke out in an overhead bin on a flight from Honolulu to Atlanta. Cabin crew needed three halon extinguishers and two water extinguishers to put out a fire originating in a laptop. For the rest of the flight the laptop was placed in a cooler with ice and monitored.

The FAA stressed that the 33 incidents are only ones that they are aware of. "This should not be considered as a complete listing of all such incidents…nor do they include all investigative and enforcement actions taken," the documented stated.

I suppose that in the age of cloud computing, traveling executives will be able to leave their laptops at home and work remotely on a temporary device they obtain at their destinations.  Nevertheless, banning laptops from airline travel entirely would be a hassle for the most pampered class of passengers, the full fare flyers, and could affect the amount of business travel, which is the foundation of airline viability.

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