Laptop turns 'firecracker'


Laptop turns ‘firecracker’
Louisa Hearn
September 18, 2006 - 2:47PM

More airlines are cracking down on the use of laptops in the air in the same week that a new incident was reported to have turned an IBM laptop into a “firecracker” at a US airport.

The incident is chronicled on the Engadget website, which picked the story up from a forum post on a site called written by someone claiming to have seen the fire and photographed its aftermath.

The forum post reports that a man suddenly came running the wrong way up the jetway in the United lounge at Los Angeles International airport, and then dropped his laptop on the floor.

“The thing immediately flares up like a giant firework for about 15 seconds, then catches fire,” said the writer of the post under the code name William Shatner.

“… if that thing had fired off while that plane was in the air, who knows what would have happened,” he added.

Although the post does not specify the make of battery, the writer said he was told by the laptop owner that his machine was an IBM, and that he had already checked that the battery was not involved in any recent recalls.

Lenovo, which now owns the IBM personal computer division, said it had dispatched an investigative team to look into the matter, but could not at this point “confirm, nor deny any details”.

Both Dell and Apple have recently introduced widespread product recalls over fears that under unusual circumstances the lithium ion batteries made by Sony and used in some of their laptop models could overheat and cause fires. Matsushita more recently introduced a smaller program in Japan only for some of its own Panasonic branded laptops containing non-Sony batteries.

As safety issues surrounding laptops persist, both Virgin Atlantic and Korean Air have followed the lead of Qantas, which issued a directive last month saying that those using Dell laptops affected by the recall could not be used with inflight AC power until batteries had been removed.

Virgin’s measures, which do not affect its local VirginBlue airline, go a step further, compelling all users of Dell or Apple computers to remove and wrap batteries in their carry-on luggage, effectively banning the use of the devices for those unable to access inflight AC power.

Korean Air has introduced similar measures, asking that batteries be removed from all Dell laptops (including those not unaffected by recall) and Apple’s iBook and Powerbook models.

“Passengers can use aircraft power when it is needed,” the airline said.

The measures introduced by Qantas have not yet been extended to Apple laptops because the airline said it would only take such action if it received a directive from Australia’s aviation regulator, CASA.

“At this stage they have not issued this directive,” said a Qantas spokeswoman.

What they should do is not to ban the affected equipment but totally ban anything with highly flammable batteries altogether, including cellphones, PDAs and other electronics. Those aren’t allowed to be turned on during landing and takeoff anyway.

The IBM that burst into flames was probably caused by impact on the battery, causing damage to it and then contact with air and igniting. It doesn’t have to be IBM, anything with a similar battery can do so if damaged in similar situations.