Federal regulators should consider further regulations on electronic cigarettes on airplanes, Massachusetts' top fire official said after his office recently concluded one of the devices caused a small fire on a plane at Logan Airport.
The Aug. 9 fire, confined to a single piece of luggage in the cargo hold, forced a temporary evacuation of the plane. A baggage handler located and extinguished the fire before the JetBlue aircraft took off for Buffalo, New York.
Massachusetts Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said his office's investigators confirmed, as initially had been suspected, that an e-cigarette packed in a passenger's checked luggage somehow turned on, causing the fire.
In a letter this week to the Federal Aviation Administration, he expressed concern that the devices can be inadvertently triggered in the normal handling of luggage.
"If this fire had started in the cargo luggage area and was undetected while the plane was in flight, a major tragedy could have occurred," Coan wrote. "The fire service would like to be assured that the appropriate federal authorities are not only aware of this life safety hazard but are actively taking steps to address it."
In light of Coan's letter, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey said he'll ask the FAA to investigate whether e-cigarettes should be allowed on airplanes at all.
"This troubling incident at Boston's airport is a warning for the entire airline industry and every person who steps onto an airplane," the Massachusetts Democrat said in a statement. "Until this fire is fully investigated by the FAA, the agency should consider banning e-cigarettes from the cargo holds of passenger planes before tragedy strikes."
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that can heat up to more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit as they convert liquid nicotine into an inhalable vapor. Airlines allow passengers to bring the devices onto planes but generally prohibit their use in-flight. About three years ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed specifically banning their use on commercial flights. The proposal has not been finalized.
Coan said he forwarded his office's findings to the FAA. The passenger whose e-cigarette was the source of the fire won't face any state penalties, he added.
An FAA spokeswoman said the agency will investigate the Logan Airport fire and respond to Coan's letter, but she deferred questions about changing airplane regulations for e-cigarettes to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which did not immediately comment.
Besides Markey, Coan also forwarded his letter to the National Transportation Safety Board, the National Association of State Fire Marshals, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, also a Democrat. In the wake of the August fire, the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan Airport, called for further restrictions for e-cigarettes on planes.
This article was originally published on October 10, 2014.