By Victoria Bryan and Tim Hepher
BERLIN/PARIS (Reuters) - Europe's aviation regulator voiced concern on Wednesday over the possible risk of fire breaking out in the cargo holds of passenger planes and urged new precautions after the United States and Britain banned computers from passenger cabins.
The European Aviation Safety Agency, which is responsible for safe flying in 32 countries, said personal electronic devices (PED) carried a fire risk due to their lithium batteries and should preferably be carried inside passenger cabins so that any problems could be identified and dealt with.
"When the carriage of PEDs in the cabin is not allowed, it leads to a significant increase of the number of PEDs in the cargo compartment. Certain precautions should therefore be observed to mitigate the risk of accidental fire in the cargo hold," the agency said in a safety bulletin.
Computers in checked baggage must be completely switched off and "well protected from accidental activation," it added.
The Cologne-based agency issued its guidance two weeks after the United States and Britain banned gadgets larger than a smartphone, including laptops and tablets, from passenger cabins on flights from certain countries because of security risks.
The European safety recommendation is not mandatory, but is likely to rekindle a debate about the scope and effectiveness of the new rules, which have been criticized by some airlines.
A group representing 38,000 European pilots said last week it was "seriously concerned" about the ban, on the grounds that it could create more safety risks.
"With current airplane cargo hold fire suppression systems, it might prove to be impossible to extinguish a lithium battery fire in the cargo hold, especially when the batteries are stored together. Therefore, any event of this nature during flight would more than likely be catastrophic," the European Cockpit Association said.
Security experts say the decision to place devices into checked bags on U.S.-bound flights from eight Middle East or North African states suggests Washington has intelligence that enough material can now be packed in a laptop, usually disguised as its battery, to cause catastrophic damage.
Placing such devices in checked baggage would expose them to greater screening for explosives and reduce the chances that a device could be deliberately located next to the cabin wall to improve the chances of bringing down a jetliner.
A suspected suicide bomber tried to blow up a Somali jetliner after it took off from Mogadishu last year, using a computer bomb near the window, but he was sucked out of the jet without causing it to crash.
France has been considering whether and how to apply similar restrictions on cabin baggage, security sources say.
However, Reuters reported last month that the rules banning many items from passenger cabins on U.S.- and Britain-bound flights would force a rethink on fire safety concerns now that they were being consigned to the hold.
(Writing by Tim Hepher; Editing by Susan Fenton)