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The Department of Homeland Security is considering banning carry-on laptops on all international flights entering and exiting the United States. Jose Sepulveda(@josesepulvedatv) has more.
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As federal authorities wrestle with whether to extend a ban on laptops in airline cabins and banish the devices to checked baggage, a huge open question remains.

Would a ban simply trade the risk of a terror attack in the cabin for the risk of a spontaneous fire or explosion in the cargo hold, caused by sometimes volatile lithium-ion batteries?

Government security officials might not know the answer yet, as Federal Aviation Administration research on these batteries has focused on shipments in cargo of batteries alone — not those in devices. But having that answer is critical as the Department of Homeland Security considers expanding a laptop ban imposed in March at 10 Middle East and North Africa airports with direct flights to the United States.

The government cited intelligence showing that terrorists had developed ways to place thin sheets of explosives in laptops that could not be detected by checkpoint X-ray screening or by requiring fliers to turn on their machines. At many airports, screening of checked  bags is more sensitive and more likely to detect such explosives.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told a House panel last week that he’s considering extending the ban to 71 more foreign airports, adding that some could avoid a ban if they adopted new security procedures being developed by his agency. Any decision on extending the ban — potentially to airports in Europe with direct flights to the United States — must be weighed against the danger of adding perhaps hundreds of bags holding lithium-ion batteries to the cargo bay. DHS is seeking more information on the risk of fire from the FAA and other experts.

ANOTHER VIEW:

Research and recent history raise troubling questions about that prospect:

  • While battery fires are extremely rare, the FAA recorded 33 incidents last year where lithium-ion batteries in personal devices caused fires in cabins. On Jan. 15, 2016, for example, fire broke out in a bag in an overhead bin just before the flight landed in Atlanta. Smoke was so strong that passengers used emergency exits to escape when the plane landed. 

  • Concerns about such fires have generally focused on large-scale shipments of batteries themselves, which have been implicated in two cargo plane crashes. The FAA also found that halon gas used to suppress cargo fires does not work on certain battery fires.

  • No data are publicly available about government tests of batteries in laptops packed in luggage. But there’s a legitimate concern about placing hundreds of them in checked bags in the cargo hold. Few travelers stow laptops in checked bags now because they want to use them during flights, or they fear theft or loss. Leaders of the Air Line Pilots Association emailed members May 31 to say they are working to ensure that decision-makers understand “the potential for an in-flight fire” due to storing devices powered by lithium batteries “in the inaccessible cargo holds.”

Security officials must heed the latest intelligence, as terrorists find news ways to obsess over their favorite target, U.S. airliners. But each time the Transportation Security Administration creates a new ban or procedure — from shoe removals, to banning liquids of more than 3.4 ounces, to intrusive pat-downs looking for underwear bombs  — travelers are more inconvenienced and terrorists find a new route of attack. “Temporary” bans have a way of becoming permanent.

Several large companies have already developed new CT-scan technology that they say can detect thin sheets of explosives in laptops at checkpoints. It still must be tested and run the bureaucratic gauntlet of federal procurement, and Congress must be willing to come up with the purchase money, perhaps in excess of $1 billion. But this is a better way to go.

Most important, officials mustn’t extend a laptop ban until they can assure the public, with sound data, that they are not trading the possibility of terrorism in the cabin for a greater likelihood of catastrophe in the cargo bay.

USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.

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