European Air Regulator Raises Safety Concerns Over Electronics Ban

Aviation agency says it would prefer devices restricted by U.S. and Britain to be carried in planes’ cabins

By ROBERT WALL

LONDON—Europe’s aviation safety regulator Wednesday effectively issued a warning about the U.S. and British decision to ban electronic devices such as laptops from a plane’s cabin on some flights.

The U.S. and U.K. last month barred passengers on inbound flightsfrom certain Middle Eastern and North African airports from carrying on devices such as tablets, laptops and other larger electronics. Passengers are being instructed to instead leave the devices behind or place them in their checked bags. Officials in Washington and London said they acted to mitigate global threats against aviation from terrorism.

Safety regulators have long worried about the risk to flights from lithium batteries catching fire while on board. Those batteries are generally used in the devices the two countries have restricted. Safety regulators had been urging devices with lithium batteries to be carried in the cabin to allow airline staff to deal with problems, such as overheating or fire, should they arise.

The U.S. targeted flights from 10 airports. The U.K. restrictions apply to flights from six countries.

The European Aviation Safety Agency issued a special safety information bulletin, a notice to airlines about its concerns, reminding carriers that such devices “should preferably be carried in the passenger cabin, on the person or in the carry-on baggage.”

Airlines placing more electronic gadgets in checked luggage or a plane’s cargo hold should take precautions “to mitigate the associated risks, such as fire in the cargo hold,” the Cologne, Germany-based regulator said.

A spokesman for Britain’s Department for Transport said it would stick to its rules. Spare lithium batteries already can’t be carried on board and, the spokesman said, the government didn’t see a risk from batteries contained within devices even if they are transported in checked bags.

British Airways , one of Europe’s biggest airlines affected by the British ban, referred questions to the government.

The EASA said airlines should ensure the devices barred from the cabin aren’t damaged in flight. Damage to lithium batteries is seen as potential cause of fire. The EASA said the devices placed in checked bags should be contained in proper packaging, rigid bags or other protection to minimize the risk of damage. It also said airlines should ensure the devices are fully switched off before being stored and protected against accidental activation.

Qatar Airways CEO: An Electronics Ban Will Just Send Terrorists Elsewhere

Militants would be able to get around a ban on carrying large electronic items into the cabins of planes bound for the United States by traveling from cities not impacted by the ban, Qatar Airways’ chief executive was quoted as saying on Friday.

The U.S. introduced security measures on March 25 banning electronic gadgets larger than a mobile phone from passenger cabins on direct flights to the United States from 10 airports in the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey, including Qatar.

“Instead of going from the airports where there is a ban, they will go to airports where there is no ban,” Akbar Al Baker told the Irish Times in an interview.

“And there are no bans in certain airports that are very risky – I don’t want to name them – but it is far easier to get on to aeroplanes from those places than it is with us.”

Announcement of the restrictions prompted some media speculation it was aimed at protecting U.S. airlines by stifling the growth of the fast-expanding Gulf carriers and Turkish Airlines, a theory dismissed by U.S. officials and many experts.

Gulf airlines Qatar, Emirates, and Etihad Airways have been battling a lobbying campaign in Washington by U.S. carriers that accuse them of receiving unfair subsidies, charges that the Gulf carriers deny and which Al Baker dismissed.

“We got equity, not taxpayers’ money, and we were given enough equity for us to be independent, which we are today, and we have to show profit,” he was quoted saying.

“We are buying American aeroplanes in big numbers and we are providing jobs. Every single flight we do brings economic benefits to the U.S. So to us, America is first.”

The newspaper also quoted Al Baker as saying Qatar did not plan to increase its 20% stake in British Airways-owner IAG (ICAGY, -1.91%).