USA und UK require electronic devices larger than smartphones to be checked in from certain countries/airports

Last Update: December 20, 2017 / 17:14:39 GMT/Zulu time

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The current USA Administration have notified airlines operating from 8 Middle East Countries, including Airlines in the United Arab Emirates flying out of Dubai or airlines flying out of Istanbul, that laptops, tablets, cameras and other electronic devices are no longer permitted in the passenger cabin and must be carried in the cargo hold instead. The Administration reasoned: "Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items."

ICAO had, following at least two crashes of Boeing 747-400s, that were attributed to fires resulting from Lithium batteries (see Crash: Asiana B744 near Jeju on Jul 28th 2011, fire in cargo hold and Crash: UPS B744 at Dubai on Sep 3rd 2010, cargo fire) as well as a number of inflight fires caused by Lithium batteries which could be controlled by cabin crew immediately extinguishing such fires and cooling such batteries down, recommended, that no Lithium batteries are carried in cargo holds of passenger aircraft and Lithium batteries can be carried on cargo aircraft if not charged above 30%.

Lithium batteries powering laptops, tablets, cameras, smartphones etc., were therefore recommended on passenger flights only and only in passenger cabins for safety reasons due to the availability of trained cabin crew to immediately take correct actions to extinguish such fires and prevent further thermal runaway.

The administrative order handed to Middle East based airlines on Tuesday (Mar 21st 2017) at 03:00AM Eastern Standard Time (07:00Z) with the instruction to comply with this order within 96 hours requires however, that such electronic devices have to be put into cargo holds out of reach of human intervention on flights originating from 8 Middle East countries to prevent a terror attack hinted by US intelligence.

Airlines known to be directly affected so far include:
Royal Jordanian
Egypt Air
Turkish Airlines
Saudi Arabian Airlines
Kuwait Airways
Royal Air Maroc
Qatar Airways
Etihad Airways

Airports known to be affected so far include:
Amman, Jordan
Cairo, Egypt
Istanbul, Turkey
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Kuwait, Kuwait
Casablanca, Morocco
Doha, Qatar
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Later the day the United Kingdom have also issued an order that electronic devices larger than regular smartphones (e.g. laptops, tablets, ...) on flights from six countries to the UK need to be checked in (and be put into the cargo holds). The countries are: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey.

This order thus puts all flights out of those countries/airports destined for the USA or UK at substantial risk of an inflight cargo fire in case of a thermal runaway of Lithium batteries assembled into such devices, that can no longer be contained due to lack of inflight access to cargo holds. At the same time this order does not reduce/mitigate any risk of such an explosive device detonate in flight by various means like time or barometric detonator, remote control or others - but again lack of inflight access to the cargo hold to contain the consequences of such an event could prevent a safe outcome like it happened in February 2016, see Accident: Daallo A321 near Mogadishu on Feb 2nd 2016, explosion rips fuselage open.

On Dec 21st 1988 a bomb downed Pan Am Flight 103, the Boeing 747-100 registration N739PA fell to ground in the Scottish village of Lockerbie (UK). The bomb had been hidden in a radio-cassette player stowed in the forward cargo hold.

While ICAO in their released document 9284 "Technical Instructions For The Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air" (work group paper DGP-WG/16-WP/1) does not specifically prohibit personal electronic devices, in particular medical devices, to be put into checked luggage (cargo holds), the ICAO clearly recommends that any electronic devices (the batteries of which do not exceed 2g of Lithium metal in Lithium Metal batteries or do not exceed the capacity of 100Wh on Lithium Ion batteries):

- carried by passengers or crew for personal use;
- should be carried as carry-on baggage;
- if devices are carried in checked baggage, measures must be taken to prevent unintentional activation;
- batteries and cells must be of a type which meets the requirements of each test in the UN Manual of Tests and Criteria, Part III, subsection 38.3.

Works on these recommendations are still ongoing within the ICAO work group.

Update Mar 23rd 2017:

In a televised interview on Mar 21st 2017 (Heute Journal) a German terrorism security expert outlined one of the possible scenarios that may have triggered these orders as issued by the USA and the UK:

There have been attempts, particularly in Yemen, to hide explosives in electronic devices. Intelligence suggests, that a method may have been developed to put components of explosives into Lithium batteries, thus entirely escaping current airport scanners' capabilities of detection. The components would then be put together once past security to assemble an explosive device. Hence it would be necessary to separate operator and device before going through airport security. There is no concrete evidence that such a method has indeed been developed, there are only hints that terrorist organisations may be working on such plans and the orders appear to be a precaution against.

The German expert however stated in the same televised interview, that the orders as issued do not provide any real defense against such threats but instead increase the overall risk by increasing the risk of cargo fires. For example the orders do not prevent this scenario to be carried out via any airport except direct flights to the USA or UK from those few airports listed. In addition, such devices could be brought to detonation by other means without the physical access to the electronic device.

The expert pointed out that the UK other than the USA does not list airports like Dubai, Doha or Casablanca. There is no explanation for these different lists however and experts are puzzled, this difference even shows the "madness" of these orders and suggests "US paranoia". The expert continued the "foolishness" of the orders becomes even more obvious considering that everything needed to assemble a bomb can be freely purchased in any duty free shop.

Intelligence The Aviation Herald received within the last 24 hours, suggests that a number of Civil Aviation Authorities in Europe have reviewed the instructions released by the USA and UK and are not convinced those orders resemble any improvement in safety and defense against such an attack but achieve the opposite effect. Those Civil Aviation Authorities therefore are not going to issue similiar orders.

A number of Civil Aviation Authorities and Safety Agencies instead argue, that if such measures to disallow such personal electronic devices in the aircraft cabin despite all relevant safety recommendations for avoidance of cargo fires requiring those devices to be placed into the cabin for immediate access in case of a developing fire, then these devices could not be permitted to be brought on board of an aircraft at all.

According to such intelligence received a few of the additional questions raised are: Does it even need explosives to bring an aircraft down or would a "defective" (Editorial note: suggesting an artificially prepared) Lithium battery not achieve the same? Why would the ban of about 10 airports remove the risk of such a scenario, would the perpetrators not simply use another airport of departure, e.g. travel out of their country to any airport like Copenhagen, Moscow, Frankfurt, Dakar, Johannesburg, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai, ... and then continue to destination thus evading such restrictions at all? (We omit other questions for obvious safety implications)

Other questions (as the scenario above is anything but verified and thus questions about the nature of the threat are still raised even at Civil Aviation Authority levels) raised are: why only those airports? If the security of such airports is not ensured, why not monitor and improve security at those airports (perhaps inconveniencing airport workers there instead of inconveniencing the general public and all travellers through these airports)?

Update Apr 5th 2017:

On Apr 5th 2017 Europe's Aviation Safety Agency EASA released a Safety Information Bulletin stating:

Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) containing lithium batteries carried by passengers should preferably be carried in the passenger cabin, on the person or in the carry-on baggage. This would enable the crew to react expeditiously in case an incident involving such PED occurs.

When the carriage of PEDs in the cabin is prohibited, this will lead to a significant increase of the number of PEDs carried in the cargo compartment, in checked baggage. This should be taken into account as part of the operator’s safety risk assessment process, and appropriate precautions should be applied to mitigate the associated risks, such as fire in the cargo hold.

The EASA released following safety recommendations:

The European Aviation Safety Agency recommends operators to inform passengers that:

- PEDs placed in checked baggage have to be completely switched off and effectively protected from accidental activation. To ensure the device is never powered on during its transport, any applications, alarms or pre-set configurations that may activate the device have to be disabled or deactivated.

- PEDs placed in checked baggage have to be protected from damage by applying suitable packaging or casing or by being placed in a rigid bag protected by adequate cushioning (e.g. clothing).

In cases where PEDs cannot be placed in checked baggage and are consequently placed directly in the hold (e.g. PEDs collected at the boarding gate), the European Aviation Safety Agency recommends that operators establish procedures and means to ensure that the recommendations listed above are implemented. Furthermore, such PEDs should be dispersed in the cargo hold, avoiding consolidation in a single container or location and, when practicable, away from any other dangerous goods.

Carriage of spare batteries, power banks and portable electronic smoking devices (e.g. e-cigarettes, personal vaporizers) in checked baggage is currently forbidden by ICAO Technical Instructions. Therefore, if these items are also prohibited from being carried in the cabin, operators should inform passengers in advance that they cannot carry them in either checked or carry-on baggage.

On Apr 5th 2017 the European Cockpit Association representing 38,000 pilots said: "With current airplane cargo hold fire suppression systems, it might prove to be impossible to extinguish a lithium battery fire in the cargo hold, especially when the batteries are stored together. Therefore, any event of this nature during flight would more than likely be catastrophic."

On Dec 20th 2017 the European Aviation Safety Agency EASA released their Safety Information Bulletin 2017-04R1 stating:

Recent testing1 performed by the FAA showed that if a thermal runaway event occurs to a large PED carried in a checked baggage together with flammable materials, such as hair spray, there is a poor chance that a Class D cargo compartment could contain the resulting fire, and a fair to poor chance that a Class C cargo compartment could contain it.

This SIB is recommending a number of precautions that should be observed in order to address this issue.

At this time, the safety concern described in this SIB does not warrant the issuance of an operational directive under Regulation (EU) 965/2012, Annex II, ARO.GEN.135(c).

The FAA presentation of the tests including various (quite impressive) videos can be found in this Power Point File.
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