Ask the pilot

Batteries pose a fire hazard and new airline rules for computers make sense. So why can't the same cool heads prevail when it comes to airport security?

Published September 22, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

At the Buenos Aires, Argentina, airport on Monday, security staff have set up a secondary checkpoint just prior to boarding. All passengers bound for the United States are herded into gate-side holding pens for the purpose of eviscerating their carry-on bags. We've already been through the standard X-ray and metal detector process, but apparently that isn't good enough.

At the table, a gray-haired gentleman pores lovingly over my belongings. He removes my laptop computer and asks me to please turn it on. "What, you mean right now?" I warn him that the old and semi-functional Apple iBook takes several minutes to boot up, but of course rules are rules, and everybody knows that a computer that actually turns on can't possibly be as dangerous as one that doesn't.

Five minutes later, with the iBook still clicking and clattering through its start-up dance, the annoyance of the people behind us grows palpable. I shoot the man an I-told-you smile. He nods, frowns and begins to claw furiously through my toiletries kit. His attention to detail shall not be in vain, as he quickly confiscates an almost empty, travel-size container of shaving cream. Unbeknown to me, the can had been sitting at the bottom of my bag for at least three weeks, and had yet to cause a moment's trouble on half a dozen flights since the ban on liquids, creams and gels became effective in August. At last it is rooted out by the keen eye of an Argentine screener. He holds up the can like a prize, aiming its little white snout at me and making a "Psssssshhht" noise. "Peligroso," he declares, his eyes widening.

Yes, clearly.

He keeps digging. He suspects there is more, and he's right. Naturally the only thing more peligroso than an empty, nonaerosol can of Foamy is a tiny glass jar of aromatic muscle balm -- Balsem Kaki Tiga brand -- purchased in Bali a couple of years ago. As with the shaving cream, I'd forgotten it was in there. Again the man fondles his trophy, bouncing it in his palm, causing me to wonder if he's not being paid by the ounce. Problem is, he can't get the partially rusted lid open to see inside. Peering through the opaque container, it's impossible to tell if the thumbnail-size blob of yellow goo is actually a forbidden gel. Just when I think he's about to ask the manager for a pair of pliers, he gives it one last twist, shrugs and returns the Kaki Tiga to my bag. Better sorry than safe, I guess. He looks almost sad.

Ah, but then something incredible, almost beyond belief, catches his eye from deep within the gaping pocket of my zipper case. It's a small pair of scissors. The man's eyebrows nearly spring from the top of his head, as if he has come across a pinless hand grenade or a petri dish bubbling with anthrax. With trembling fingers he lifts the deadly Fiskars for all to see. The blunt-tipped, inch-and-a-half cutting blades glint menacingly in the fluorescent light of the terminal.

"No, no, no," he says.

Mind you, these scissors, similar to the ones handed out in kindergarten, were purchased expressly for travel, and are perfectly legal per the Transportation Security Administration's detailed (and rather hilarious) roster of carry-on contraband. Unfortunately, I am 5,000 miles from the TSA's jurisdiction, and when I protest the loss of my scissors, a conversation ensues with an Argentine supervisor, who proudly informs me that their rules are even tougher than America's.

To this point, having visited 30 or more countries since Sept. 11, I've been impressed with the more logical and sensible protocols ordinarily found at airports overseas. America might be home to the most security-obsessed airports in the world, but we also have the most illogical, chaotic and jury-rigged procedures. It's disheartening to see our bad behavior spreading to South America. Curiously, though, the Argentines reserve such tender care for only those fliers headed for the U.S. At the adjacent gate, travelers bound for Brazil are watching us with amusement, free to board at their leisure with no additional checks or confiscations.

"Perhaps you didn't hear," I'm informed by a fellow passenger. "A few weeks ago, somebody tried to get on a plane here with a stick of dynamite."

Tried and succeeded. On Aug. 24, a 21-year-old college student from Connecticut boarded a Continental Airlines 767 here with a half-stick of dynamite, a blasting cap and a black-powder fuse in his checked luggage. The suspect told authorities he'd purchased the materials as souvenirs during a trip to one of the popular silver mines in Potosi, Bolivia. The items weren't discovered until a sniffer dog got whiff of them after the jet landed in Houston, so it's pretty apparent he hadn't intended to blow up the plane.

Either way, it fails to justify the procedures: Because a person smuggled dynamite inside a checked suitcase, we're going to take kiddie scissors and tiny cans of shaving cream from your carry-ons. That sounds suspiciously like TSA thinking, so I have to wonder who, exactly, has ordered up this rigmarole? Was it Argentina's call, or have America's homeland security wizards asked foreign airports to enhance their inspections? (Later, when I try to find out, nobody in Washington or Buenos Aires returns my calls or e-mails.)

At one point I count 10 gate-side security screeners assigned to our flight. Four, anchored behind a low table, are doing the bag checks. Another two, off to the left, are in charge of Phase 2: a pat-down and a head-to-toe scan with a magnetic wand. Three others are milling around shouting orders. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the people of Argentina having good jobs and a stronger economy, but am I to assume that an equal number of uniformed personnel are busy down below, giving our checked luggage, which is much more susceptible to deadly import -- like half-sticks of dynamite -- equal attention? I have my doubts.

Before heading over to be frisked and wanded, I notice the man has taken my shaving cream and placed it on the floor with a small pile of similar contraband. You'll see this same thing at airports in America: heaps of shampoo, toothpaste, soap, bottled water, cups of coffee, jumbled into bins to await disposal. Logic would dictate this material needs to be carefully removed and destroyed. After all, it's potentially hazardous. If you're taking somebody's shaving cream, the presumption has to be that perhaps it's not shaving cream after all, but instead something dangerous. Otherwise, why is it prohibited? And some of those liquid bombs we've been hearing so much about are concocted from highly unstable chemicals, meaning they need to be handled very carefully.

So what happens to this stuff? Does the bomb squad come in every evening and cart it away in steel casks? Don't be ridiculous. It's hurled into the trash. The line of reasoning goes like this: We already know these items are harmless, but we're going to take them anyway. Later, after you leave, we will dump them down the drain.

Are you feeling safer?

And on and on we go. As for what the citizen flier can do about all of this, aside from writing your congressperson, which isn't a terrible idea, perhaps you're one of those people (like me) who enjoy signing on to feeble Internet petitions. If so, you can express your displeasure by adding your name to the Restore Liberty at U.S. Airports protest, put together by Ask the Pilot reader Scott Palamar.

If you're worried, Palamar insists he's not a Homeland Security mole, and reports that fewer than half of all signees have been added to the government's no-fly list.

Getting back to Buenos Aires for a moment, what would have happened, do you think, had my notebook computer failed to boot up? And what of computers with dead or missing batteries?

I don't know the answer, but ironically it might be safer to fly with a nonworking computer sans battery than with a functioning model -- particularly if that functioning machine's battery is of the lithium-ion variety known for bursting into flame.

As you may have read, millions of defective laptop batteries used in Apple and Dell machines were recently recalled on grounds the units can spontaneously ignite. The high-energy lithium-ion power packs are susceptible to a phenomenon called "thermal runway" -- a chemical chain reaction causing them to rapidly and uncontrollably overheat. Apple and Dell recalled almost 6 million batteries made on those companies' behalf by Sony. The brands and models affected may expand, as the same Sony batteries are used in computers sold by Gateway, Hewlett-Packard and others.

Safety issues with batteries -- both lithium-ion and other types -- aren't new. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the Federal Aviation Administration has recorded 60 overheating incidents in the past 15 years. Older lithium and nickel-based batteries have their problems too, but it's the more powerful, rechargeable lithium-ion variety that poses the greatest threat. Two years ago, a pallet of improperly packaged batteries caught fire aboard a Federal Express plane on the ground at Memphis, Tenn., as it readied for takeoff. Last May, a bag containing a laptop computer and six lithium-ion batteries caught fire in the overhead bin of a Lufthansa flight preparing for departure from Chicago-O'Hare. And earlier this month, a Sony-powered IBM ThinkPad caught fire inside the United Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International.

In response to the recalls, Australian carrier Qantas announced restrictions on the in-flight use of Dell laptops fitted with the suspect Sony batteries. Seoul-based Korean Air followed with a similar measure, while Virgin Atlantic Airways announced a more sweeping prohibition on the use of all Dell and Apple models. The measures don't ban the computers outright, but require that they be used only while plugged into in-seat power ports (typically found only in first or business class). Batteries must be removed from the machines and stowed separately. Other carriers are in line to follow, and should further incidents occur like those in Chicago and Los Angeles, tougher restrictions are sure to be enacted. (The impact of a total lithium-ion ban would be enormous and for the most part unnecessary. Although the batteries are used in everything from laptops to cellular phones to DVD players, in smaller devices they run at much lower energy levels, greatly reducing the risk of overheating.)

The new airline battery rules are a good idea, mostly, though it would behoove the industry not to overstep and strike certain brands from the cabin entirely. Doing so could result in considerable numbers of potentially hazardous computers being relegated to checked luggage. Although airlines would require the removal of those computers' batteries, it's fair to assume not all passengers would follow the rules, setting up the possibility for fire in the baggage hold. It's true that all modern aircraft have fire detection and suppression capability down below; nevertheless, the greater danger isn't a small fire in the passenger cabin, where it can be readily put out with an extinguisher (there are always several extinguishers on board), but the potential for an unseen, spreading fire in a location inaccessible to the crew.

Have a look at this photo of a United Parcel Service airplane that caught fire during flight last February. The jet made an emergency landing in Philadelphia before being ravaged by an inferno that burned for more than four hours. The crew narrowly escaped, evacuating on the runway as smoke poured into the cockpit. An investigation continues, but the National Transportation Safety Board believes the fire's point of origin may have been at or near a shipment of lithium-ion batteries.

Trust me when I tell you that an on-board fire, not "terrorism," whatever that even means anymore, is the stuff of crew-member nightmare. The crew of the UPS Flight 1307, a Douglas DC-8 freighter virtually identical to the ones I flew myself for three years, was maneuvering to land at the time of the emergency. Proximity to the runway is likely what saved them. Had the fire started over the ocean or otherwise far from an airport, it's doubtful they'd have made it.

"For an air cargo pilot, there is no scarier scenario than an in-flight fire," says Jim Haney, a UPS captain and safety committee member at that carrier. He has followed the Philadelphia incident closely. "All freighter aircraft have smoke or fire detection systems, but few have any substantial means of suppressing or fighting that fire in-flight. Diverting as soon as possible is the best solution, but if over an ocean the closest airport may be many hours away. Chances of survival would be small."

Case in point, the 1987 tragedy involving South African Airways Flight 295, a 747 en route from Taipei, Taiwan, to Johannesburg. The plane crashed into the Indian Ocean after a cargo fire, killing all 159 people on board. No source of ignition was ever determined, as the aircraft plunged into water 15,000 feet deep, but much of the freight consisted of computer components, including lithium and nickel-cadmium batteries.

Scary, but for those of you already uneasy about flying, it's critical to realize that a known problem is not necessarily a crisis. The risk of fire has always been low, and is liable to be lower as airlines and shippers grow increasingly cautious. Until a change of technologies becomes feasible, this type of situation is best addressed through sensible management of in-cabin devices -- like the rules put in place by Korean, Virgin and Qantas -- and sharper oversight of checked luggage and cargo.

And I'm uncertain whether it's refreshing or depressing that the industry, government and the traveling public alike are able to respond rationally and smartly to the battery problem, yet lose all control over a comparative nonissue like August's liquid bomb farce. Of all the dangers presented by terrorists, perhaps the gravest one is the ability to fool and distract us.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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