A recent incident at the Orlando airport underscores the nervousness these days of the security implications of personal electronics.
Apparently a camera containing a lithium battery exploded, causing tremendous confusion and disruption as explain in this Orlando television station report.
This was not a laptop, tablet or smartphone. But there have been issues in the past with specific items, including some Samsung smart phones and some hoverboards. In some devices it seems even a battery not plugged in has caught fire.
Laptops have not have many incidents; however some time this year high school students watched a 2006 laptop blow up in their California home.
Contrast this with the controversy last spring with the temporary bans of in-cabin electronics from airports in various countries, on the theory that terrorists could devise plastic explosives that could be hidden from security, as this story by Jack Stewart in Wired had explained.
According to the LA Times, the TSA implemented a new rule requiring screening of all laptops and similar electronics. It’s not clear if this applies to Known Travelers, who presumably are trustworthy users of consumer electronics in the normal and lawful manner. A July 2017 memo from the TSA suggests that TSAPrev travelers are exempt (also see this).
But as I noted in May, the TSA (and similar security in all other countries) has to face a basic policy reality. There are some incidents of very low probability that are impossible to prevent with absolute certainty. It’s almost a quantum thing. Laptops on flights were not controversial until this year. I’ve flown with them for twenty years. But more modern lithium batteries have at least a theoretical risk due to the fact that lithium is fairly reactive. Remember the high school chemistry experiment of putting sodium into water? (There has been at least one injury in the past few years from that demonstration.)
As I wrote in May, we need to solve the problem of the best approach to electronics and travel. Could non-lithium batteries be used again and improved? Could a safer ground rental system be developed, if some day it was no longer practical for people to take their own electronics? (You don’t have to take your data if it’s in the Cloud, hopefully.) There would seem room in the blogosphere for advice on how to travel with gear and make sure it works when you get there — along the lines of “Blogtyrant’s” ideas on how to help readers with content (to the point that readers actually welcome emails).
We need to keep an eye on this problem.
(Posted: Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 at 12 Noon EST)
Update: Nov 15
Here is TSA’s own blog post on passenger options if an item is not allowed on a plane or in checked luggage.
Here is the FAA’s current policy on batteries in equipment brought into planes, pdf. Here is an explanation of watt-hours for a battery. The FAA sheet would imply passengers should know the watt-hours of their batteries that aren’t always published but are printed on the batteries themselves (since 2011). They should normally be less than 100.
(Video on battery access)
A quick visit to a near Best Buy and discussion with a tech verified that Apple typically makes battery info details available to consumers as an app, but most PC-style laptops based on Windows or other ops do not. A policy solution to the safety problem discussed here could include making the info available to the user on a firmware app. Many modern laptops (like the ASUS) require considerable effort and practice (and Philips screwdrivers) to open properly to see and exchange the batteries.
Update: Nov. 16
It still seems that checkpoint-friendly bags (USA Today story) for laptops are recommended, and they must not have extra compartments or buckles. Yet, relatively few of them at a local Best Buy store were compliant. Retailers don’t seem to have a lot of knowledge about this.
Airports seem to be encouraging electronics, with modern docking stations in secure areas, and restaurants (in secure areas also) with order menus on iPads.
Update: Nov 17
I found myself going through security after returning a rent car at Fort Lauderdale without the opportunity to check a bag (I later learned that was on a higher floor). So the regular luggage went through the TSA-Prev line and a shaving cream container was confiscated even though it would have been acceptable in checked luggage (which I checked at the gate).