Yesterday’s JetBlue flight 915 from New York JFK to San Francisco departed on time but made it to San Francisco more than 3 hours late because the aircraft had to divert to Grand Rapids because “the lithium battery in a passenger’s laptop” which was “stowed away in backpack in an overhead bin” caught fire.
Fliers first realized something was wrong when they noticed smoke coming from row 25.
“I was stunned,” said passenger Kat Honniball. “I knew something was going to happen because you know, lithium batteries catching on fire when you’re up at 38,000 feet, you can’t help but think you gotta do something, so I was prepared for it.”
…The flight crew put out the fire and emergency crews removed the damaged equipment after landing.
Flight crews can put out a lithium ion battery fire when the device is in the cabin. Indeed the fire was out before the plane landed in Grand Rapids.
When lithium ion batteries catch fire in the cargo hold there’s far less that they can do. That’s why lithium ion batteries have been banned from checked luggage, at least until the US government banned electronics larger than a standard cell phone from passenger cabins on flights from certain Mideast airports (while allowing those who wish to bring on dangerous iPads to connect on their way to the U.S.).
Terrorists Can Circumvent the Laptop Ban by Flying Dubai – Baku – New York JFK instead of Emirates Non-stop, copyright: nordroden / 123RF Stock Photo
Airline executives know that an electronics ban is stupid, but they’re afraid to speak up for two reasons. The head of United’s pilots union is nearly alone in speaking out, offering “Lithium-ion batteries are clearly hazardous — I don’t want a hazardous device in my cargo hold.”
It makes sense for airline executives to remain quiet, even if it compromises safety, since none of them will be blamed for a catastrophic fire in the cargo hold.
Airlines are one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country. Airline ‘deregulation’ just means the government no longer tells airlines what routes to fly and the federal government no longer sets prices of airline tickets. The federal government:
- directly manages air traffic control and oversees safety.
- imposes taxes specifically on flights.
- decides which passengers are allowed to fly.
- grants foreign travel rights.
- exercises a tight grip on local governments which generally own and manage airports (through covenants that accompany grants).
In addition, US airlines want favors from the government like protection from foreign competition.
Airline executives are loath to offend their regulators who hold US airline futures in their hands by speaking against the federal government.
And the regulated airlines, just like regulators themselves, have a conservative bias. Just like the FDA has to be absolutely sure that a drug is safe before allowing it to be sold, rather than balancing risks, and as a result delays life saving drugs — patients die in the mean time — because they don’t want to be blamed for getting something wrong, security regulators are loathe to relax restrictions for fear of future blame.
It’s why we still have a liquid ban despite so many fits and starts suggesting it could end. And it’s why even when the TSA has asked to stop screening for hockey sticks Congress wouldn’t let them focus on finding actually dangerous items a terrorist might want to bring on a plane.
We learned yesterday that an electronics ban on flights from Europe to the U.S. isn’t imminent although the U.S. refuses to take the option off the table entirely. However it remains in place for flights from the Mideast, making those flights less safe.
It’s entirely understandable why most in the airline industry are too afraid to speak out. But since safety is so crucial in aviation, it’s important that they make their voices heard.