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At the Heart of Laptop Ban Debate, Officials Ask Which Is Worse: Bombs or Accidental Battery Fires?


In a debate over air travel safety, U.S. and European officials agree on one thing: Laptops on flights could be dangerous.

The proposed expansion of a U.S. ban on laptops and other large consumer electronics in cabins could land more of these devices in the luggage hold, creating the risk of accidental battery fires, officials have said. It would also be a logistical nightmare to enforce, with minute differences between accepted devices and banned ones. Last year, the UN’s aviation agency banned passengers from storing spare lithium batteries in their checked luggage.

The Trump administration earlier this month said it was considering extending its cabin ban on laptops and other large consumer electronics to U.S.-bound flights from Europe. The U.S. in March prohibited passengers from carrying such devices on board when traveling from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa. The U.S. government had said terrorists might try to use those electronics to smuggle a bomb on board.

Travelers flying from Europe to the U.S. won’t yet have to part with their laptops and tablets. A meeting between European and U.S. travel officials in Brussels this week ended with no ban, although the Homeland Security Department said it is still under consideration.

President Donald Trump admitted this week he shared intelligence with Russian diplomats about threats to commercial aviation. That intelligence was reportedly related to the possibility Islamic State could use a laptop in a terrorist attack on a commercial airliner. The laptop battery could be so well-masked, security screeners could power up the computer without detecting the device, USA Today reported, citing an unnamed government source.

Currently, aviation officials warn electronic devices using lithium-ion batteries should be kept in the passenger cabin so crew can quickly put out a fire on board. The UN aviation agency banned commercial airliners from carrying bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries as cargo after two fatal crashes of cargo planes carrying these batteries, in 2010 and 2011. The Federal Aviation Administration last year urged airlines to review safety procedures for carrying lithium ion batteries.

It isn’t yet clear whether the U.S. will extend the cabin ban to flights from Europe, as officials will have to weigh the risk of two frightening scenarios.

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