Three Airlines Ban Laptop Batteries -- Don't Panic

The announcement today that Virgin Atlantic Airlines is requiring its passengers to remove the batteries from certain Dell and Apple laptop computers has already made its way around the world in a modern electronic form of the old kid's game -- Gossip.

Gossip, and several more modern equivalents, means starting a simple message at one end of a long line of participants, whispering the message in the adjacent ear and requiring the recipient to quickly whisper the closest equivalent to the next person, and so on.

What usually emerges from the public announcement of the last person in the chain bears no resemblance to the original message, and neither does the "word," currently creating a collective shudder among those of us who are all but surgically attached to our laptops, bear any resemblance to reality. ("Wait! Wait! You can't take my laptop away! The hard drive contains my BRAIN!")

Relax. What Virgin did -- following the same move by Qantas and Korean Air -- is just lean to the side of caution in dealing with a specific problem with a specific type of laptop battery used in certain models of Dell and Apple computers built between 2003 and 2006.

The problem is essentially minor in that the darn things have a disturbing tendency to catch on fire while you're otherwise engaged in, er, computing. Therefore, it seemed to Virgin's safety folks that allowing a cabinful of these batteries to be used in flight might fall just a hair or two outside the boundaries of conservative airborne operations.

Now, it is true that the average individual sharp enough to be using a laptop in flight should certainly be aware at a rather early stage that his or her lap is on fire, but what if said passenger is sleeping? Worse, what if five or more of the already-recalled batteries decide to combust simultaneously (and at the same time) in the same airborne cabin?

The resulting bother to the flight attendants in having to race around the cabin indecorously using fire extinguishers to put out overheated passengers while ruining their computers is, quite frankly, inconsistent with proper British decorum.

But to Virgin's credit, the solution wasn't to mindlessly ban the laptops from the cabin, or even require they remain unpowered during the flight. Virgin is merely asking its customers to take the potential incendiary batteries out of the laptops before plugging into the aircraft's relatively safer power supply.

If your laptop is made by Electrons-are-us and uses a different type of battery, you may compute at will with battery in place.

The versions of this "ban" making its way around the water coolers, chatrooms and BlackBerried grapevines today, have been akin to the cartoonists' favorite old New York doomsayer with the sandwich signboard reading "The end is near!"

No, it isn't. In fact, there is scant reason to ever ban laptops and personal electronics from cabins of commercial aircraft anytime in the future, even for anti-terrorist purposes, for two overriding reasons: One, laptops are needed business and personal tools that compensate in many ways for the lost hours of sitting on an aircraft, and thus, are very important to the customers and, therefore, to the airlines that serve those customers; and two, the only significant use a terrorist could make of a laptop or other electronic device in the absence of being able to infuse plastic explosives, would be as a trigger for a bigger explosive. Eliminate the potential of bringing bigger explosives on airplanes and the presence of potential electronic triggers becomes moot.

Of course, making sure no one has infused a bit of C-4 or Symtex or other powerful plastic explosives in the laptop, cell phone, camera, or any other electronic device, itself, is a significant challenge, but we have the technology and the screening procedures to reduce that risk far below the threshold of something our enemies would consider using. Therefore, the remaining challenge is what we saw the world's airline security forces focus on last month: keeping liquid explosives on the ground and out of airplanes.

So, before you head for the airport, you scarlet-lettered users of Dell and Apple laptops (your writer included), check to see if your batteries are on the recall list, and if so, please replace them. Even if you're not flying to London. The rather startled passenger in the next seat will appreciate not having to throw her drink on your blazing keyboard.