Travelers, take note. Laptop computers could be banned from airplanes in the future.
Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a two-day hearing to determine whether lithium batteries—the kind used in laptop computers and other portable electronics—had ignited and sparked a fire aboard a UPS cargo plane. The fire, which occurred in February, forced the plane to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia. Three crew members reportedly suffered minor injuries. It took firefighters several hours to extinguish the blaze, owing in part to emergency responders' inability to quickly determine what types of hazardous materials were on board the freighter.
Lithium batteries have been linked to other aircraft fires as well. In 1999, a shipment of lithium batteries ignited after being unloaded from a passenger jet in Los Angeles. Another shipment erupted in flames in Memphis in 2004 while being loaded onto a FedEx cargo plane.
According to published reports, investigators in the Philadelphia fire found several computer laptop batteries on the plane and noted that in some cases, portions of the laptop batteries had burned. Several other hazardous materials on board the plane have been ruled out as possible causes.
Though the hearing is over, it is likely to take the NTSB several months to rule on the fire's cause. The board is also investigating related issues, such as how to make cargo flights safer overall and how to expedite responses to future emergencies.
Is it possible that laptops will eventually be banned? "It appears to me that the NTSB might make some kind of recommendation on restricting air transportation of electronics, both on passenger and cargo planes," says Lawrence Bierlein, a partner with McCarthy, Sweeney & Harkaway, P.C., a Washington, D.C., law firm that specializes in hazardous materials transportation. "It won't happen right away but it is something they are looking at."