The real difficulties behind banning laptops and tablet devices in plane cabins in Australia

If a laptop ban is imposed, travellers may be forced to leave their electronics at home.

If a laptop ban is imposed, travellers may be forced to leave their electronics at home.

In considering a ban on electronic devices on international flights, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull may care, if he hasn't done so already, to download a copy of his own government's Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) brochure entitled Planning to fly? Is your luggage safe? A guide for aircraft passengers.

It reveals the potential difficulties Australian authorities, and authorities from other countries, confront in banning laptop and tablet devices from airline cabins on flights to and from Australia.

It also explains precisely why Australia and European Union nations had not followed the original lead of close allies the US and UK, despite the obviously clear security threat that led to the imposition of the ban in the first place.

CASA, in its information brochure, states that the "abundant energy" that makes rechargeable lithium batteries - which so efficiently power electronics that air-travellers typically pack for trips - also makes them "prone to generating heat and starting fires".

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In a safety video by CASA, Travelling safely with lithium batteries, the dangers of a lithium-battery induced fire is demonstrated with dramatic effect. 

For Australian travellers, limits apply to certain types of lithium batteries with some only permitted on flights as carry-on or not at all. Aside from the potential general inconvenience caused to Australian passengers, airlines and airports by such a ban, the existing regulations around lithium batteries pose a major dilemma for Australian authorities.

Commonsense would dictate that if batteries inside laptops, tablets and other devices can't be taken into aircraft cabins or stowed in the hold of aircraft then they may have to be banned entirely from flights. This would represent a major imposition to travellers, particularly business passengers, the source of most airlines' profits, potentially leading many to cancel or postpone trips.

In March, the US followed by the UK banned electronic devices bigger than a mobile phone on flights from a series of majority-Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Unlike Australia, neither nation has introduced regulations that ban lithium batteries from aircraft holds, a decision which has raised major concerns among aviation and electronics experts internationally.

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Although fires caused by lithium batteries are exceedingly rare, fears remain that poor manufacturing standards of such items could lead to a small fire, igniting adjacent flammable items, even as innocent as nail polish in luggage, stored in aircraft holds.

Permitting lithium batteries in aircraft holds has made it easier for US authorities to introduce and maintain its ban, with consideration now being given to extending it to flights from Europe. This has triggered fears of chaos at airports on either side of the busy Atlantic route.

The US laptop ban applies to flights originating from 10 airports in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar and Morocco, while the UK's measure applies to inbound flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. 

If Australia was to emulate the ban it would conceivably need to review, amend or withdraw legislation prohibiting lithium batteries in aircraft luggage and cargo holds. A fire in such a part of an aircraft could be just as catastrophic as any terrorist attack that governments worldwide are so desperate to thwart.

Anthony Dennis is National Editor of Traveller in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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