Lithium
What Does the Laptop Ban Mean for Travelers?

Cargo loading on aircraft

Recent Airline Laptop Ban

On March 25, 2017, the United States government implemented a ban on passengers bringing carry-on electronic devices such as laptops on board certain airlines. This ban will affect electronics that exceed the size of a cellphone—typical products that will be banned include laptop computers, tablets such as the iPad and Android versions, gaming devices larger than a cellphone, DVD players, and portable printers and scanners. These devices may still be carried by travelers, but must be stowed in checked luggage during the flight. Medical devices will be exempted from the restrictions.

The ban affects flights leaving from ten airports in eight Middle Eastern countries.

Airports Involved in the Ban:

  • Abu Dhabi International Airport, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
  • Ataturk International Airport, Istanbul, Turkey
  • Cairo International Airport, Cairo, Egypt
  • Dubai International Airport, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
  • Hamad International Airport, Doha, Qatar
  • King Abdulaziz International Airport, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
  • King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
  • Kuwait International Airport, Kuwait City, Kuwait
  • Mohammed V Airport, Casablanca, Morocco
  • Queen Alia International Airport, Amman, Jordan

The ban affects flights of the following airlines leaving from any airports listed above:

  • EgyptAir
  • Emirates
  • Etihad Airways
  • Kuwait Airways
  • Qatar Airways
  • Royal Air Maroc
  • Royal Jordanian Airlines
  • Saudia
  • Turkish Airlines

The ban is intended to only apply to direct flights from these locations to the U.S., which would total just about 50 flights a day. If a traveler were to make a connection, say, in Frankfurt or Paris, the ban would not apply. (One imagines some very jealous passengers watching others enjoying their electronic entertainment simply because they boarded at a different airport.)

Why a Ban?

The exact concerns that triggered the ban is not clear. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has cited a “sophisticated” laptop bomb involved in an incident on board a Daallo Airlines flight in 2016. This new development in explosive devices could, it’s feared, be smuggled past security in countries with laxer procedures for inspecting carry-on baggage. If a powerful bomb could be hidden in a relatively small device, it would make detection difficult.

But why permit these potentially lethal devices in checked baggage? It appears that intelligence believes that such devices would require direct triggering, rather than a timer or remote control. In the cargo compartment these devices would be electronically isolated from commands by Bluetooth or similar means, and they would probably be too small to include an effective timer. In addition, such devices would, due to their small size, have a relatively small explosive radius. By requiring them to be checked, terrorists may be prevented from positioning the bombs in an effective manner. Other experts claim that the ban would do little to prevent a bomb from being detonated in an aircraft hold.

To add to the confusion, the United Kingdom (UK) has created its own list of fourteen restricted airlines, only four of which are on the U.S. list. Canada is also contemplating implementing a similar ban. Canadian Minister of Transport Marc Garneau has discussed the ban with Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, but no restrictions affecting Canada have yet been announced.

Does the Ban Introduce New Dangers to Aircraft?

Protecting air travel against terrorism and protecting against hazardous materials sometimes are clashing goals. After the “shoe bombing” incident, DHS started to ban matches and lighters in carry-on baggage. They advised travellers that they should put these goods in their checked luggage, apparently unaware that this would put the travellers in violation of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules banning such articles.

The problem with electronic devices is that they generally contain lithium batteries. Such batteries have caused multiple incidents on aircraft due to their tendency to overheat and catch fire if damaged or improperly handled. Travellers can consult the Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR), published by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) for guidance on carrying electronic devices that contain lithium batteries.

According to Table 2.3.A, Provisions for Dangerous Goods Carried by Passengers or Crew, “[p]ortable electronic devices containing lithium metal or lithium ion cells or batteries, including medical devices such as portable oxygen concentrators (POC) and consumer electronics such as cameras, mobile phones, laptops and tablets, when carried by passengers or crew for personal use (see 2.3.5.9)” are allowed as carry-on or as checked baggage. However, the provision goes on to note “[f]or lithium metal batteries the lithium metal content must not exceed 2 g and for lithium ion batteries the Watt-hour rating must not exceed 100 Wh.” These levels are usually met by consumer electronics, but it is a good idea to check the manufacturer’s specifications to be sure.

A further requirement is that when such devices are put in checked baggage passenger must take measures to prevent unintentional activation. While most such devices protect the on/off switch by their design, some (such as the iPad) could be turned on during flight by bumping the power button, and must therefore be cushioned in some manner to prevent this.

In the past, airlines have recommended that portable electronics be kept in the passenger compartment. Lithium battery fires can get out of control in the hold of an aircraft, while in the passenger compartment trained flight crews can quickly access the device and extinguish it. Placing more consumer electronics in inaccessible holds will, ironically, increase the risk from lithium fires.

Spending hours on overseas flights without our digital assistants for work and play would be much different from the experience most travellers have come to take for granted. The U.S. ban on portable electronics is currently temporary, due to expire in October, but much will depend on what happens over the next few months. If a legitimate threat is found, the ban could well become permanent or spread to other airlines and departure points. Additionally, the risk of terrorist attack must be balanced against the threat of lithium battery fires in aircraft holds.

As always, the airlines may have their own standards or ways of implementing these rules. If you have an electronic device that you wish to fly with, and you’re planning a trip that would be affected by the ban, consult with the airline in advance. They can confirm if, say, the new Nintendo Switch handheld console is an acceptable size.

Are you planning on travelling with portable electronic devices, and need to know how to do it safely? Our regulatory staff at ICC Compliance Center will be happy to help. Just contact us at 1.888.442-.628 (USA) or 1.888.977.4834 (Canada).

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