Putting Laptops in Airplane Cargo Holds Is Ridiculous but Almost No One Will Say So

A laptop ban is an idea whose time hasn't come -- and hopefully never will.

While recent reporting on the likelihood of a ban's imposition has been contradictory, USA Today reported Tuesday that the Department of Homeland Security is still considering banning large electronics, including laptops, from the cabins of trans-Atlantic flights from Europe.

A Homeland Security spokesman told USA Today that it was "absolutely wrong" to report the concept of a ban has been dropped.

That is too bad, because if this ridiculous idea is ever imposed it would result in hundreds of potentially dangerous lithium batteries being placed into the cargo hold of every trans-Atlantic aircraft.

As if to underscore the danger, late Tuesday a JetBlue New York-San Francisco flight diverted to Grand Rapids, Mich., because of a lithium battery fire in a passenger's carried-on laptop. Fortunately, the fire, easily visible in the cabin, could be quickly extinguished.

Caught in the middle of the continuing debate on a laptop ban, U.S. airline industry leaders -- except for the chairman of the United (UAL) chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association -- have been unwilling to speak out decisively due to fears of angering the Trump administration.

"Nobody wants to piss off the Kellys of the world," said aviation consultant Bob Mann, referring to DHS Secretary John Kelly, who said Sunday that he might expand the ban -- now in place at 10 Middle East airports -- to all international flights entering or leaving the U.S. That is about 4,300 daily flights.

"Go along to get along, that's the story here," Mann said. "Everybody who spends a lot of money lobbying the administration is reluctant to call them out on this issue. You don't want to give them any reason to be upset with you."

From a security perspective, putting laptops in cargo represents "a bet that in-line screening for checked baggage will detect something you wouldn't have detected with normal carry-on detection," Mann said. Not necessarily a great bet.

From a science perspective, he said, putting laptops in cabin bins is sub-optimal. "When you charge these batteries, they get hot, and if they inadvertently discharge via short-circuit, they heat up more rapidly and they can enter a 'thermal runaway,'" he said.

"You don't want that in an area where you can't see it, grab it and do what flight attendants can do in the cabin -- put it in a fire blanket or throw it in a container of ice water or use a fire extinguisher," he said.

Todd Insler, chairman of the United ALPA chapter, said Tuesday, "Placing {laptops} in cargo doesn't solve the problem. It just creates a different problem.

"Lithium-ion batteries are clearly hazardous -- I don't want a hazardous device in my cargo hold," said Insler, a New York-based Boeing 767 captain. "That's the wrong solution."

Insler acknowledged that allowing laptops on board can also create terrorism risks, not to mention the lesser fire risk. He advocated for laptop bans at select airports where screening may not be adequate.

A ban would not be unprecedented. In 2015, about 60 airlines -- including United -- banned hoverboards either as carry-on or checked baggage because of concerns about the lithium-ion batteries.

In the summer of August 2006, electronic devices were banned on flights from Great Britain to the U.S. after British security officials uncovered a plot to blow up aircraft. The impact was disruptive, particularly in the early days, but the ban was eventually eliminated.

U.S. airlines are in a tough spot.

In a report Wednesday, Buckingham Research analyst Dan McKenzie said a potential laptop ban could cut revenue at the big three U.S. carriers. For instance, a 10% drop in international revenue could reduce United revenue by 3.9% while reducing American and Delta revenue by 2.9% each, McKenzie said.

McKenzie acknowledged his impact estimates are imprecise because carriers would act to reduce them. "They'll adjust capacity; likely accelerate retirement of older wide-bodies and/or use smaller gauge aircraft, and even back-fill with lower yield traffic," he said.

Another threat, cited by Cowen & Co. analyst Helane Becker, is that if the U.S. imposes a laptop ban affecting EU airports "the real issue would be if the EU announced a reciprocal electronics ban on U.S. passengers to the EU."

Airlines also face risk if they oppose a ban too strongly, said Peter Goeltz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board and a CNN commentator.

Were there to be a successful terrorist event, "not only would the economic impact be devastating to the carriers, {but also} the carriers don't want to be in the position where something dreadful happens and the inevitable investigation identifies steps they failed to take to protect their passengers," Goeltz said.

Kathy Allen, spokeswoman for A4A, the airlines' lobbying group, said, "U.S. airlines have a successful history of working with the appropriate government agencies to ensure the highest level of security is in place for everyone who flies.

"We continue to believe that security and efficiency are not mutually exclusive goals," Allen said.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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