Official: Feds should look at e-cigarettes on planes

BOSTON - Federal authorities should consider further restrictions for electronic cigarettes on planes, airport officials said after one of the devices apparently started a small fire that forced passengers to briefly evacuate a plane last weekend.

Ed Freni, director of aviation at the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Boston's Logan International Airport, said the device was packed in a passenger's checked luggage and burned a small hole in the bag. He said it could have been far more serious had a baggage handler not smelled smoke, located the smoldering bag and extinguished it before the plane took off.

"If that airplane had taxied out and got airborne it might have been a very different story," Freni said Friday.

E-cigarettes, which turn a liquid nicotine solution into a vapor, are typically powered by lithium-ion batteries. They are considered personal devices under U.S. aviation rules and are treated like other battery-powered devices, such as laptop computers, cellphones and cameras. Like cigarettes, however, passengers can't use e-cigs in-flight.

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Under current federal regulations, airline passengers are allowed to bring personal devices onto planes, but all lithium-ion batteries must be protected from damage or accidental activation. Spare lithium-ion batteries are prohibited from checked baggage.

A U.S. Department of Transportation spokeswoman said the agency, which regulates which items are deemed hazardous on planes, is not currently considering further restrictions on personal devices.

Freni, of the Massachusetts Port Authority, says not enough attention has been paid to potential fire safety issues around e-cigarettes.

While the authority and the airline say all signs point to the e-cigarette as the source of the fire, the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services said the cause had not yet been determined.

Department spokeswoman Jennifer Mieth cautioned people not to jump to conclusions about e-cigarette safety, but she said the agency does recommend users disconnect the device's batteries before putting them away as a precaution.

"Obviously it's a great concern to us if there is a new product that might be a potential source of fire," she said.

There has been concern about lithium-ion battery fires for years, and they have been implicated in at least two cargo plane crashes.

Bob Duval, of the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy could recall few instances where e-cigarettes were involved, though he did point to a 2009 fire on a plane at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport that apparently was sparked by a shipment of e-cigarettes.

"It's a new technology, and we're trying to catch up to the potential risks behind it," he said. "If nothing else, it's a battery issue, and, to some extent, it's a question of quality. You get what you paid for."

Cynthia Cabrera, executive director for the e-cigarette trade group the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association, said she would expect the industry to take a closer look at fire safety if the investigation determines an e-cigarette was the cause of the Logan fire.

"We always want the safest possible product on the market, from laptops to cellphones and vapor products," she said. "This is a new issue. Consumers have been travelling with vapor products and e-cigs for quite a long time. In my mind, this is probably an isolated incident."

The Logan Airport fire happened Saturday night as luggage was being loaded onto a JetBlue plane bound for Buffalo, New York. Real Hamilton-Romeo, a spokeswoman for the airline, said that all its aircraft are equipped with fire detectors and fire-suppression devices in the cargo hold.

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