Airlines, for very good reason, take safety most seriously. Persistent and vigilant efforts by airlines, the aerospace industry and regulators have made traveling on a commercial airliner incredibly safe. The global jet accident rate in 2016 was 0.39 hull losses per million flights—or just one major accident for every 2.56 million flights—while the five-year rate from 2011-2015 was just 0.36.

This makes the new US and UK security rules relating to carry-on personal electronic devices (PEDs) an anomaly. For while the bans on passenger carry-on PEDs larger than smartphones might reduce a security risk—government officials say terrorists are trying to hide explosives in PEDs and take them onboard for suicide attacks—they also increase the risk of a potential fire in the cargo hold. For those airlines affected by the new rules, introduced in March, there is no option but to make passengers place their laptops, tablets, e-books and similar electronics in checked baggage. 

But, as regulatory bodies and safety organizations point out, those lithium battery-powered devices, if not fully turned off and properly stored, can be a fire hazard. And while a fire anywhere on an airliner is a bad thing, one that breaks out in the cargo hold during flight is harder to contain and extinguish than one in the cabin. It is also more likely to spread if the PED that catches fire is packed close to other PEDs, which is far more likely to happen if the flight’s entire passenger load has been forced to put their electronics in their checked bags.

For this reason, regulatory wisdom has been that airlines should advise customers to keep their PEDs with them in their carry-on.

The new rules, instigated by the US Department of Homeland Security and followed by the UK, apply to only certain flights. The US measures affect direct flights to the US from 10 airports, including Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha Hamad and Istanbul Ataturk. The UK measures apply to direct flights to the UK from six countries that include Turkey, but not the UAE or Qatar. This means that Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways, Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways direct flights to the US are affected, but Emirates, Etihad and Qatar flights to the UK are not.

Neither the US nor the UK has explained why their intelligence organizations have designated different target lists or how different electronic devices that might contain explosives are thought safer in the cargo hold than in the cabin.

The bans have also been alleged to be politically motivated. They target mostly Middle Eastern airports and airlines. The timing of the US ban, in particular, coincides with a renewed campaign by American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines to stop the expansion of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways to US cities. Because no US airlines fly to the Gulf hubs, none are affected by the ban. 

Even if the selection of which flights must comply with the ban is purely security motivated, it creates severe market distortions. Passengers are highly reluctant to give up their PEDs and some, especially business travelers, are not permitted to if it’s a company laptop. The Gulf carriers have each offered passenger amenities to mitigate the hassle, but the effect can still push customers to find alternative routes on US and European carriers. IATA DG and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said the bans were “not an acceptable long-term solution” and the US and UK governments should “urgently find alternatives”. 

Both countries remained silent.

They also are refusing to comment on the increased safety risk these bans bring about. After the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) issued a safety information bulletin (SiB) in April, clearly meant to raise awareness of a heightened fire risk posed by the rules, and the US Flight Safety Foundation issued a statement warning that the bans “significantly increase the number of PEDs carried in cargo holds” and urging the industry to “fully consider the consequential risk,” it became apparent that FAA had issued a SiB when the US implemented the ban. FAA’s SiB, for reasons not made clear, is not being made public. But FAA said EASA’s SiB was based on language in the FAA SiB.

EASA’s bulletin describes PEDs as “dangerous goods” in the cargo hold and notes that when PEDs are not allowed in the cabin, “it leads to a significant increase of the number of PEDs in the cargo compartment. Certain precautions should therefore be observed to mitigate the risk of accidental fire in the cargo hold. In particular, PEDs placed in checked baggage must be completely switched off and well protected from accidental activation.”

EASA executive director Patrick Ky added, “Spontaneous ignition or thermal runaway of lithium batteries present safety risks which need to be taken into account. We must take all precautions to make sure that mitigating one risk does not lead to another risk.”

The US and UK officials responsible for this risk anomaly again stayed silent. 

Quotables

“The word shame comes to mind.” 

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz talking to ABC News two days after a passenger was violently dragged off a United flight and giving his reaction to seeing the video.

“PEDs containing lithium batteries are considered dangerous goods. When carried by passengers, they should preferably be carried in the passenger cabin.”  

EASA statement as it issued a safety bulletin in response to US and UK new security rules banning most personal electronic devices in the cabin on certain flights.

“We have very robust security systems at our airports. This is why the UK did not include us. I have very high regard for the intelligence community in the UK and, if they are not including us, it means we were unfairly included by the US government.” 

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker, criticizing the US ban on large, personal electronic items.

“Nothing can kill a passenger experience more than one disgruntled employee.”

Springshot CEO Doug Kreuzkamp, speaking at the AIX conference in Hamburg.

“The signals are that America is not as welcoming as it traditionally has been and that brings risks to travel and tourism.” 

Association of Asia Pacific Airlines director general Andrew Herdman.