Travelers usually put laptops in their carry-on bags so they can use them during the flight and reduce the risk of theft or damage. Another advantage of having laptops in the cabin is that if the battery explodes, flight crews can respond.
It is easy to see why banning laptops in the cabin to thwart terrorists may actually boost the odds of a plane crash. If a laptop explodes under the plane, the fire may spread to the luggage jam-packed in the cargo area.
This advantage was illustrated on May 30, when a laptop battery exploded on JetBlue Flight 915 from New York to San Francisco.
The plane made an emergency landing at about 8:10 p.m. in Michigan “following reports of smoke emitting from a carry-on bag holding an electronic device,” according to JetBlue.
No one was injured thanks to a quick response by the flight crew at 38,000 feet in the air. The passengers were calm, but terrifying incidents like this one are becoming more common. Just how common?
Every 10 days on average, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). There were 31 battery explosions on planes and in airports in 2016. At least 18 incidents have been reported so far this year.
The problem raises concerns about the wisdom of forcing air travelers to stow laptops under the plane.
In March, U.S. President Donald Trump prohibited travelers from eight Muslim-majority countries from bringing electronics larger than a smartphone in their carry-on bags, forcing them to put laptops in checked baggage.
The list of countries includes Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey.
U.S. officials were considering extending the laptop ban to include all nonstop flights from Europe until mid-May, when U.K. pilots warned that “consequences could be catastrophic.”
The problem isn’t terrorism — it’s the growing number of defective lithium-ion batteries in laptops, smartphones, and other electronics carried by millions of ordinary air travelers.
For example, over 700,000 lithium-ion laptop batteries were recalled due to fire hazards by HP and Toshiba in January 2017 alone. Two months later, an airline passenger suffered horrific burns to her face when the batteries in her headphones exploded mid-flight to Australia.