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Can US, UK Ban on Electronics Actually Harm Flight Safety?

Can US, UK Ban on Electronics Actually Harm Flight Safety?

As a shocking surprise and wake-up call to the aviation community, including airline passengers, the USA followed by the UK have decided to ban electronic devices larger than cell phones as carry-on items on board airplanes. This measure applies to some specific airports and airlines, which connect passengers traveling from North Africa and the Middle East to the USA or the UK. Based on the fact sheet released by the US Department of Homeland Security, this is part of security enhancement measures based on evaluated intelligence, which suggests the likelihood of terrorist groups smuggling explosives inside various consumer electronic devices.

While it is within the rights of any sovereign state to decide what measures can improve their security, the ban and guidelines do raise some serious questions as far as flight safety is concerned.

  • Why impose on airlines to fly dangerous goods against flight safety guidelines?
  • Does the US, UK ban on electronic devices really enhance safety or security?

Why impose on airlines to fly dangerous goods against flight safety guidelines?

Indeed, most electronic devices powered by lithium batteries are classified as dangerous goods and thus are recommended not to be transported in checked luggage. The reason being that lithium battery can catch fire or explode inflight. Therefore, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) under the Annex 17 to the Chicago convention has issued guidelines in order to ensure passenger and flight safety.

Thus, by imposing on airlines to carry dangerous goods in aircraft cargo instead of in cabin where they are recommended to be carried, if at all, these new measures may actually put those targeted flights in danger of experiencing either lithium battery fire or explosions mid-air. The consequences of such potential occurrences may be both devastating and fatal to the passengers and the crews. So, it appears that the stated enhanced security measures have overlooked these serious flight safety concerns. It is also important to highlight that this move by the US Department of Homeland Security comes in sharp contrast with the FAA’s Safety Alert for Operators SAFO 16001, which was published on January 1, 2016, based on a long-standing collaboration between the FAA, ICAO, and various aviation stakeholders. So clearly, this ban on electronic devices goes against well-documented guidelines, which ensure flight and passenger safety.

Does the US, UK ban on electronic devices really enhance safety or security?

Having discussed flight safety concerns, the next question to be asked is: do these new measures really enhance security and safety? And the answer is: it is doubtful that they contribute to any improvement of existing safety and security measures. For instance, under the Annex 17 to the Chicago Convention, the ICAO mandates the systematic scanning of all portable electronic devices.

Let’s assume that an ill-intentioned passenger was able to smuggle unlawful material inside a portable electronic device, which has not been detected by the scanners at a given airport. In such a case it makes little or no difference whether that unlawful device is stored in a carry–on or a checked luggage. So clearly, a much more logical and understandable measure should have been to fix or upgrade airport scanning devices and procedures, if they were deemed not advanced enough to deal with increasing threats. The current ban is doing nothing of that nature.

Another extreme alternative would have been to temporarily ban all electronic devices on all flights, regardless of their origin, until all applicable scanners and procedures have been upgraded. That would not have been welcomed by the general public and the air travel community, but flight safety and aviation security should always be the highest priority. In which case, no chances are being taken to allow compromised electronic devices on board any flights departing from any airports. The recent US and UK measures are also a clear departure from that customary notion of enhanced security and safety.

In summary, it does appear that the recent decision taken by US and UK Governments to ban electronic devices at selected airports and airlines are in reality not adding any value to enhance the safety and security mandates and guidelines already in place under the purview of the international civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

On the contrary, by requesting airlines to systematically carry lithium-battery powered electronic devices in checked luggage, which are normally stowed in the cargo area, these controversial measures may prove to be more harmful to flight and passenger safety, because of potential fire or explosion hazards in flight caused by lithium batteries.

We hope that all sensible aviation stakeholders around the world would urge US and UK Governments to lift their ban before that proves harmful to innocent airline passengers and crews. It is simply unreasonable to impose measures, which can compromise the safety of hundreds of air passengers.

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Kofi Sonokpon

Kofi Sonokpon

Managing Editor of Airline Profits, the first aviation magazine devoted to improving airline effectiveness and profitability, Kofi Sonokpon has more than 20 years of international experience in aviation. Kofi holds an IATA sponsored Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Air Transport Management from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal. Kofi Sonokpon is also an author and speaker on the topics of leadership, effectiveness, and profitability.