A Laptop Ban Could Actually Kill People – Bloomberg
The laptop ban is coming. Can anyone doubt it?
The latest signal came on Fox News Sunday, when Chris Wallace interviewed President Donald Trump’s secretary of homeland security, John Kelly.
“Are you going to ban laptops in the cabins on all international flights into and out of the U.S.?” Wallace asked.
“I might,” Kelly replied, flashing the small, satisfied smile of a man who enjoys his power. “There are numerous threats against aviation,” he added, because terrorists are obsessed with blowing up airplanes filled with “U.S. folks.” When Wallace asked him for a timetable, Kelly just said, “We are going to raise the bar, generally speaking, for aviation security. It’ll be much higher than it is now.”
Already, the Trump administration has imposed a laptop ban on flights arriving from 10 airports in eight Middle Eastern countries. Not only must laptops be put in checked baggage on those flights, so must any computing device larger than a cell phone. Next, Washington is expected to broaden the ban to include flights arriving from Europe. And, as Kelly implied in his interview with Wallace, eventually the laptop ban is likely to be imposed on outgoing flights as well.
Although the Department of Homeland Security refuses to specify why the ban is necessary — it’s classified intel, you know — intelligence sources have told the New York Times and others that Islamic State jihadists now have explosives that can be hidden inside laptop batteries, and that can’t be detected by the X-ray machines deployed by the Transportation Security Administration at passenger security checkpoints.
Apparently, the government’s view — though, again, no one is saying — is that it’s more difficult for terrorists to set off a laptop bomb in the cargo hold than one in the cabin, where they can manually detonate it. Plus, the theory goes, a laptop bomb in the cargo hold would need to be rigged with a timer, which could be more easily be detected by scanners.
Even putting aside the most obvious flaw in this logic — that checked bags are scanned randomly rather than comprehensively — the proposed laptop ban has so many problems, and raises so many questions, that it is hard to know where to start. Why does Homeland Security assume that laptop bombs will only be smuggled onto international flights, not domestic ones? Why can’t it just insist that people go through airport security with their laptops turned on, so that agents can see that they are computers, not bombs?
If people don’t have possession of their laptops, won’t laptop theft from checked bags become a problem? Will travelers who are part of the $17-a-year TSA pre-check program be exempt — and if so, won’t that exacerbate the unseemly divide between haves and have-nots on flights?
Will business travelers revolt? Passengers “won’t accept the delays and confusion this rule will cause as it’s rolled out,” the security expert Bruce Schneier noted recently. “Unhappy passengers fly less.” Joe Brancatelli, who runs Joe Sent Me, a website for business travelers, says that the disruption to global business will cost the airlines billions.
But there is one question that looms above all the others, or at least it should. Will a laptop ban actually increase the odds of an airplane full of passengers exploding — not because of terrorism but because of the lithium-ion batteries that power modern computers? Although this can’t be said with 100 percent certainly, the answer appears to be: yes.
Lithium-ion batteries are not benign devices; that’s well known among computer engineers and aviation experts. The liquid inside the batteries is flammable, and a short circuit can cause a fire. On rare occasion, the short circuit is the result of faulty design, as with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 that was ultimately banned from flights and recalled by the company.
But sometimes it happens because a device is jostled or overheats. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there have been 160 “incidents” involving lithium-ion batteries in cargo holds since 1991. In 2010 and again in 2011, cargo planes carrying pallets of the batteries caught fire and crashed, killing the crew members aboard. And in January, 2016, the F.A.A. issued a warning about transporting batteries in the cargo hold, noting that “a lithium battery fire could lead to a catastrophic explosion.”
When a laptop in the passenger cabin spews smoke or bursts into flame — it’s happened some 19 times over the last five years, according to Christine Negroni, Forbes’s aviation blogger — it is quickly noticed and extinguished. But a fire in the cargo hold won’t be noticed, and experts say that the heat from such a fire quickly grows too high to be extinguished by the fire containment equipment in the hold.
That’s why the United States Postal Service stopped shipping products with lithium batteries overseas. It is why Federal Express classifies lithium-ion batteries as “dangerous goods” and imposed strict rules about how they must be packaged. It is why the Air Line Pilots Association has called for “comprehensive regulation governing cargo shipments of lithium batteries.”
When I made some inquiries about why the F.A.A. wasn’t raising holy hell about Kelly’s laptop ban, giving its warnings about the dangers of the batteries, I was told that transporting lithium batteries in bulk creates a different scenario than shipping laptops and iPads in checked luggage. But the agency is also going to be conducting tests to gauge the potential danger a laptop ban might pose. Those tests are now in the planning stages. Given the pace at which the government moves — as well as the need to get this right — the work is unlikely to be done soon.
But consider: On a flight with, say, 200 passengers, there could be as many as 400 lithium-ion batteries in the cargo hold. Yes, they’re not packed together. But if one burst into flames in a suitcase, it is not hard to envision the flame spreading, and one battery after another exploding. And what if another manufacturer comes out with a faulty product, as Samsung did, after the ban is in place? It would dramatically raise the odds of a disaster.
When I asked Schneier whether he thought as I do that the odds of a crash caused by a battery fire in the cargo hold was higher than a terrorist attack using a laptop bomb, he replied that there was “simply no way to make the numerical comparison.” But, he added, “My intuition matches yours.”
In his blog, Schneier calls the laptop ban “security theater,” which he describes as “security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security.” At the very least, you would think that Kelly and Homeland Security would stop to consult other branches of government about the danger they will create by insisting on putting devices with lithium ion batteries in the cargo hold.
After all, it doesn’t really matter if you’re killed by a terrorist or by a battery explosion resulting from a government mandate. You’re dead either way.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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