Aviation regulations require that pre-flight safety briefings and demonstrations be conducted to explain interalia; conditions for use of Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs).
What are PEDs?
Any piece of lightweight electrically-powered equipment is a PED. This includes toys, cellular phones, e-readers, tablets, laptops, voice recorders, camcorders, MP-3 players, watches, shavers, hearing aids, pace makers and blood glucose meters.
For a period spanning over three decades, suspicion was rife amongst the aviation community, that PEDs with transmitter/receiving capability like two-way radios and cellular phones, if used during flight, would interfere with aircraft communication and navigation systems.
As a result, many regulators imposed a total ban on the use of such devices during flight, unless when switched to airplane or flight mode.
However, owing to the rapidly increasing development and use of devices with transmitting/receiving capability, and the desire of operators and passengers to use wireless technology onboard aircraft, studies were conducted to assess the possible impact of PEDs on aircraft avionics and other onboard aeronautical systems.
In one of the studies conducted in 2003 by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA), at the request of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the RTCA concluded that;
“…there was an insufficient amount of data, insufficient breadth of data, and insufficient standardization in data collection to draw specific conclusions with respect to the safe and compatible use of any transmitting PED on any aircraft.”
In 2013, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) permitted restricted PED usage aboard aircraft in “flight mode”. In September 2014, this restriction was lifted.
However, individual airlines have the option to permit, refuse or restrict PED usage on their aircraft depending on the operator’s safety assessment.
In the EAC region, usage is prohibited unless the PED is listed in the operator’s safety manual. It is up to the operator to determine whether a PED will interfere with safe aircraft operations.
However, all PEDs must be turned off and stowed during take-off and landing because of the possibility of injury to passengers, as well as the likelihood of missing safety announcements during these important phases of flight.
Ban from the Cabin
On 21 March 2017, United States (U.S) banned large electronic devices-larger than smart phones-from cabin baggage on U.S-bound flights originating from Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, Cairo, Istanbul, Riyadh, Jeddah and Casablanca.
The United Kingdom (U.K.) imposed a similar ban a few hours later, although this did not affect U.K-bound flights from Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar. In addition, the U.K. specified that the ban applied to devices that were either larger than a smart phone, or 16cm long, 9.3cm wide or 1.5cm deep.
Unlike the early 1990’s ban on transmitting PED usage, where the primary consideration was safeguarding the safety and integrity of aeronautical systems, the March 2017 ban was imposed for security reasons. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) can be artfully concealed in large PEDs and detonated by passengers in the cabin.
Authorities in United States and United Kingdom determined that security screening systems and procedures at some airports could not detect the artfully concealed IEDs in PEDs, yet terrorist groups were increasingly targeting commercial aviation and seeking methods to bring down passenger jets.
On 31 October 2015, Metrojet flight 9268 crashed, killing 217 passengers and 7 crew members. Preliminary findings indicate that the aircraft was brought down by an onboard IED explosion.
On 2 February 2016, Daallo Airlines flight 159 made an emergency landing following an explosion, while climbing out of Aden Adde International Airport (Mogadishu). The explosive had been concealed in a laptop carried on board by a suicide bomber.
In both instances, security procedures in place did not detect the artfully concealed IEDs.
The U.S Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has since lifted the cabin PED ban for U.S-bound flights. All ten airports are now compliant with DHS enhanced security guidelines, including increased passenger/luggage screening procedures at pre-boarding gates and use of explosive trace detection equipment.
However, the ban is still in force for U.K-bound flights on which PEDs may only be transported in the cargo hold.
How safe are PEDs in the cargo hold?
Most PEDs are powered by lithium-ion batteries. These batteries heat up, emit fumes and are classified as dangerous goods that require careful handling.
A concentration of such batteries in PEDs stowed in the cargo hold – although originally intended to protect commercial aviation from terrorism – raises a safety question. A 400 passenger aircraft with just as many or more lithium-ion batteries in the cargo hold is a dangerous proposition.
The batteries could heat up, self-ignite and start a fire in the hold. Intense heat generated by such fires could easily overwhelm aircraft cargo hold fire suppression systems.
On 3 September 2010, UPS Airlines flight 6 crashed due to un-contained fire, which originated from a zone in the cargo hold that contained a significant number of lithium type batteries and other combustible materials.
Presence of flammable materials, including lithium-ion batteries on the same pallet in the cargo hold, was listed as a contributing factor to the fire that caused the crash of Asiana Airlines flight 991 on 28 July 2011.
The Aircraft and Railway Accident Board (Republic of Korea) recommended that lithium batteries should be loaded in a separate Unit Load Device (ULD) and segregated from other dangerous goods.
On 4 April 2017, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) issued a safety bulletin to airlines and aircraft operators, warning that lithium-ion batteries are capable of spontaneous ignition or thermal runaway. It recommended as follows;
Chances are that more than 50 percent of PEDs on a passenger flight may not have been turned off, or could become activated during flight.
In addition, the average passenger is unaware of the dangers of lithium batteries and may not take extra care to pack PEDs in a manner that protects them from damage.
Until an alternative to lithium-ion is invented, prudence requires that PEDs be transported in the cabin.
It is easier to invest in technology that detects terrorists at airports, than extinguish an intense cargo hold fire, 40,000 feet above sea level.