A single overheating laptop in checked luggage that bursts into flames on an airliner can overwhelm the fire suppression system and potentially bring down the aircraft, according to disturbing new research.
Regulators had believed that the flame-retardant gas required in airliner cargo holds could knock down single lithium battery fires, Bloomberg News reported.
But tests conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration found the suppression systems can’t put out a battery fire that combines with other highly flammable material, such as the gas in an aerosol can or cosmetics.
“That could then cause an issue that would compromise the aircraft,” Duane Pfund, international program coordinator at the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told an aviation safety forum in Washington on Wednesday.
The PHMSA regulates hazardous materials on airliners along with the FAA.
The research highlights the mounting risks of lithium batteries, which power everything from mobile phones to gaming devices. Bulk shipments of rechargeable lithium batteries are not permitted on passenger planes.
The FAA’s findings last year prompted the government to urge the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization to call for a ban on electronic devices larger than a mobile phone in checked luggage. That effort fell short, Pfund said.
“One way or another, we have to deal with these hazards,” said Scott Schwartz, head of the hazardous goods program at the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union in North America.
The union hasn’t taken a formal position on whether there should be a ban on lithium batteries in checked bags and is seeking greater education campaigns so passengers are less likely to put spare batteries and electronics in their checked items.
In June 2017, the U.S. Homeland Security Department funneled more such electronics into cargo holds amid concerns that items as small as a tablet computer could be used to conceal bombs.
The agency stopped short of a threatened ban on moving the devices into the cabins, but required additional screening of electronics.
The FAA hasn’t placed any new restrictions on what passengers may pack in checked luggage.
Last year, it told airlines they should conduct a safety study to determine what more they should do to limit the risks of battery fires in cargo holds.
FAA tests found that anti-fire halon gas in airline cargo areas wouldn’t extinguish lithium battery fires, but it prevents them from spreading to adjacent materials.
However, aerosol cans exploded in tests even after they were bathed in the gas, the FAA found.
“There is the potential for the resulting event to exceed the capabilities of the airplane to cope with it,” the FAA said in a notice to airlines.