When laptops go bang

When laptops go bang
Alex Goldfayn assesses the risks of inflight fires caused by laptop batteries

Distraught and scrambling off the United Airlines plane, the man ran out of the jet bridge past passengers waiting to get on board, clutching his laptop. Smoke poured from it. He ran to a relatively unoccupied area of the gate and threw the Lenovo computer on the ground. It ignited, shooting a 60cm flame upward.

“A few people yelled `terrorist,’ and ran away,” said Tom Mustaine, 30, who was sitting at an adjoining gate and witnessed the event at Los Angeles International Airport.
“The thing gave off a terrible, chemical smoke. It burned for about two minutes before they extinguished it. The whole gate area filled with noxious smoke. People were gagging.”
This incident, which occurred in September, was the latest, most public, and perhaps the most dramatic in a string of laptop
battery fires.
It prompted Lenovo to recall more than 500,000 of its notebook batteries worldwide.
So far, more than 5 million notebook batteries in the United States – and nearly 10 million worldwide – have been recalled this year by manufacturers including Dell, Apple, Panasonic, Sony and Toshiba.
Every one of the recalled batteries has one thing in common.
“They were all Sony batteries,” says Richard Stern, associate director at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (www.cpsc.gov), the government agency that oversees consumer product recalls.
The recent spate of battery recalls falls under Stern’s jurisdiction. The problematic units appear to have come from the same rather large “batch.”
“It’s a quality-control issue,” Stern explains. “Sony has reported that for a certain batch of their lithium-ion production, there were metal particles located in a certain part of the battery cell that, under certain circumstances, could penetrate the insulating material inside the cell and create an internal short circuit.”
Last month in Japan, a laptop battery sparked in a Fujitsu employee’s hands as he was retrieving the battery from a user’s home as part of the company’s recall.
In June, a Dell laptop ignited in a conference room.
The United Airlines passenger’s laptop that went up in flames at LAX started giving off smoke when he was seated on the plane.
My burning question is, what would happen if a laptop ignites in flight?
“On the plane, it would have been catastrophic,” says Mustaine, who witnessed the LAX laptop fire. “I think there would have been an enormous panic. The smoke filled a large part of the terminal. It definitely would have filled the plane. It’s an extreme fire causing an extreme inability to breathe.”
What if a laptop ignites in an overhead compartment? Or under the seat in front of you?
Or worse, in the baggage compartment of the plane?
United Airlines, apparently not eager to discuss this issue in detail, responded to my inquiry with this e-mail: “When it is safe to use electronic equipment in-flight, for example not during take-off and landing, our customers can use their laptops.”
But several non-U.S. airlines, including Virgin Atlantic and Korean Air, have been checking laptop battery serial numbers before passengers board.
Virgin’s cabin crews, for example, check all batteries on Apple, Dell and IBM-made laptops. If the battery is on the recall list, it must be placed in checked luggage.
Airlines in the United States, however, provide no such safety checks.
“Airlines aren’t allowing Scope and Crest on board, but they’re allowing these batteries through,” says frequent flier David Millman, chief executive of Rescuecom, a computer repair and support firm. “So far, we’ve been lucky, but it’s a real danger.”
Adds Mustaine: “I’ve thought about this a lot since seeing that laptop on fire. The laptop’s going to burn until it’s done burning (through the battery fuel cells and plastics). You have to let it do its thing. If there’s fire on a plane, it makes people panic.”
In a 2003 report, Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority found that a lithium-ion battery fire “will almost certainly cause severe harm to any passengers in the immediate vicinity. There is also a risk that the fire will spread to adjacent flammable material, e.g. clothing, newspapers, rugs, carpet.”
It went on to cite a “risk of harm from smoke inhalation to passengers and crew members, particularly if the electronic device is inside a carrying bag.”
The Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for determining what can and cannot come on board U.S. flights, has not issued a ruling on the safety of passengers’ laptop batteries.
But experts urge to keep the problem in perspective.
“There are well over 250 million laptops in use in the world,” says Tim Bajarin, principal analyst at California-based Creative Strategies Inc. “And we’ve had less than 50 (battery fire) incidences recorded worldwide.”
Adds the CPSC’s Stern: “I assume risk every day. I can’t control my environment unless I stay in my house.”
Even Mustaine is going to keep flying – with his laptop.
“I think the airlines just need to be smart about it. This is obviously a bad batch of batteries. Just keep track of the known bad batteries and check for them before people get on board.”
Here’s hoping the airlines get the message.