Lighters Banned on Airplanes

Lighters are now banned on U.S. commercial flights, but not matches.

The Senators who proposed the bill point to Richard Reid, who unsuccessfully tried to light explosives on an airplane with matches. They were worried that a lighter might have worked.

That, of course, is silly. The reason Reid failed is because he tried to light the explosives in his seat, so he could watch the faces of those around him. If he’d gone into the lavatory and lit them in private, he would have been successful.

Hence, the ban is silly.

But there’s a serious problem here. Airport security screeners are much better at detecting explosives when the detonation mechanism is attached. Explosives without any detonation mechanism — like Richard Reid’s — are much harder to detect. As are explosives carried by one person and a detonation device carried by another. I’ve heard that this was the technique the Chechnyan women used to blow up a Russian airplane.

Posted on April 20, 2005 at 4:21 PM35 Comments


Alex Krupp April 20, 2005 5:01 PM

Bruce, I read your book and I notice you seem to know a lot of trivia about the screening machines and success/fail rates of the procedures at airports. Is there a book, journal, newsletter, etc. that this is all from? I am curious.

Janus Christensen April 20, 2005 5:18 PM

“[..] If he’d gone into the lavatory and lit them in private, he would have been successful.”

A ban on lavatories on US inbound flights will be the next thing to expect then…

Jarrod April 20, 2005 6:03 PM

Matches are still allowed (up to four books, IIRC). Confiscated lighters are destroyed, as they cannot be mailed (the USPS will not accept lighters to be mailed, as they are considered flammable).

I’ve also heard anecdotal evidence that lighters can be purchased at stores on the other side of the security screeners. Go figure.

dbs April 20, 2005 9:51 PM

The question of course comes “Are any of these bans ever going to be lifted?” – There’s plenty of talk about adding more and more restrictions to travel, and none of these are making any sense, as you pointed out.

I wonder at what point will the constant decay reverse. It’s always harder to grant rights and not have that new ‘freedom’ abused than to take said right away in the first place.

The fear here, see, if someone brings up that lighters are no threat to an airline, the TSA says “Oh, it’s okay to bring a lighter on board now” and some other bright light will go “HEeeeey, I didn’t THINK of that! Now I can light aunt mabel’s book on fire!”

Curt Sampson April 20, 2005 10:20 PM

No, the bans are not likely to be lifted. A simple risk analysis will tell you why. The ban itself is at worst a mild inconvenience to lawmakers. However, if a ban is lifted, no matter how remote the possibility of something bad coming of it, if something does, the person who lifted the ban is going to be blamed. Not at all worth the risk, to those making the regulations.

That’s why we still have regulations such as not being able to start the pushback until all the passengers on the aeroplane are seated. There’s never been more than an extremely minor accident prevented by this, and the regulation is suprisingly costly (2-3 extra minutes on the ground times thousands of flights each day), but it’s just not going away.

logicnazi April 21, 2005 1:57 AM

Hmm, it would seem that by dividing a bomb up into many pieces an organized terrorist cell would have no problem smuggling it into an airport. Since carry on screening is done far from the departure gate presumably many different individuals could bring in very small pieces essentially undetectably.

I mean you could have twenty or thirty people bring in small amounts of plastic explosive in their mouths (swallowing it if they are about to be detected) and then assembeling a sizeable mass piece by piece in a mens room.

In short it would seem that airline security can at best be seen as detering crazies and those who aren’t very prepared. We can not and should not expect it to protect us from organized well funded terrorist cells.

Then again I suppose this is hardly the weak point in the system. A surface to air missile might be more effective for an organized terrorist group.

Clive Robinson April 21, 2005 4:23 AM

I accept that the ban has been put in place for silly reasons, however various people have wanted lighters off aircraft long before 9/11.

Lighters are considerably more dangerous than matches, in that they contain volatile hydrocarbons in a system designed for normal atmospheric conditions. When taken on an aircraft the closed environment and reduced preasure gives rise to venting from the lighter and a build up of hydrocarbons in the cabin.

Also the level of oxygen in an aircraft can be significantly higher than that found at sea level, vastly reducing the Lower Explosive Limit (LEL) of the hydrocarbons (especially in emergancies when the oxygen masks are released).

The effects of hyrocarbons can have undesirable consiquences both for the saftey of the airframe and for the crew and passengers.

The obvious dangers are the small increase in the risk of fire or explosion (but intestinal gas also has this consiquence). Less obviously are the mental impairment caused by the intoxicating effects, and the increase risk of cancer.

There is a significant increase in risk of cancer in aircrew and regular fliers, and various factors have been considered (hydrocarbons, radiation, viral infections etc) however except in the case of passive smoking there has not been any experiments to provide the evidence as to which might be most likley.

Also you are unlikley to hear any complaint from the airlines who would love to stop you smoking to reduce the costs of cleaning and refurbeshment, and the potential of being sued by their staff who do develop cancer.

Otto Lagarhus April 21, 2005 7:12 AM

Security screening is for the most part utter nonsense. What is achieved by banning lighters and allowing matches? If I want to cut and stab the crew on a flight and set it on fire, I buy a bottle of vodka in the duty-free, break it when airborn, ignite the alcohol with my matches and then use the broken bottle to stab the crew and my fellow passengers!

jim April 21, 2005 7:29 AM

I for one think the ban on butane lighters in airplanes is reasonable. When combined with an aerosol can like hairspray or deodorant, the butane lighter can be a very violent and effective weapon. When used in the same manner, a match stick is useless. Also, as stated above, the lighter contains one or more ounces of highly volatile explosive propellant. As a youth, I learned how an effective weapon could be fashioned from a pop can, tennis ball and a butane cigarette lighter.

The fact that stick matches are still allowed is a reasonable alternative and in my mind is not in any way a restriction of personal freedoms.

Prior to 9/11, the government (read FBI) was widely criticized for “not connecting the dots???. In this case, they have connected the dots in a well reasoned manner, so that, for the time being, news reporters won’t have to opine “Who would have thought that terrorists would use a butane lighter to torture a flight attendant????

cmylod April 21, 2005 8:42 AM

Some god news: bans can be lifted – once the noise levels drop off. There are some new rules allowing short (metal!) knives on UK flights soon. Joe Public didn’t fall for the excuses on bans on knitting needles and tweezers (take me to Cuba or your eyebrows go) but the powers that be show they only rescind the dumbest of rules quierly when attention is elsewhere.

Ralph Broom April 21, 2005 11:35 AM

Regarding Clive’s cabin air recirculation comments, while cabins are pressurized, they are not sealed. There is an entire air change within the cabin every 2-3 minutes, typically. Thus, no hydrocarbon build-up would result. (Localized rapid venting is of course still an issue.)

Also, there is no smoking at all on domstic U.S flights (Clive may be from outside the U.S.), so I’m not sure what the additional deterrent would do.

Probitas April 21, 2005 1:03 PM

Thanks alot! Now that you are all letting the cat out of the bag, they’ll be banning vodka and hairspray on flights, too. Imagine a planeload of women with bad hair, and nothing to drink in order to make them attractive.

Clive Robinson April 21, 2005 2:06 PM

@Ralph Broom

Ralph yes I am from outside the US, oh and the cabin air change is controled by the pilot. Unfortunatly changing the air consumes extra aviation spirit so costs money, so they are discoraged from doing it.

If you hunt around on the Internet you will find research done on TB and air travel where they showed that there was a very significant risk of contracting TB on an aircraft with an active carrier due to the lack of air change. In fact one report indicated that the worst flights to fly on where those that had been through Holand and the UK as sufferes of TB traveled through these destinations on their way to the US.

scosol April 21, 2005 3:49 PM

When I flew back home for xmas I realized that I had the means to cause my airplane to crash with just what I had in my carry-on stuff.

While in Iowa, I bought a 750ml bottle of the real Everclear (95% pure alcohol or something)- it was in my carry-on bag along with some thin socks, and I had a lighter in my pocket.

You can see where it goes from there…

anon April 21, 2005 4:17 PM

I didn’t think it would matter how Reid lit the explosives he had on the plane. My undertanding was that he had plastic explosives (similiar to C4) and lighting plastic explosives will only make them burn it won’t explode. I know several ex-military who would light up a piece of c4 and use it to warm up there rations. Am I missing something here?

Ari Heikkinen April 21, 2005 5:42 PM

In my opinion they should have banned both along with smoking while at it. Hey, smoking’s bad for your health, so it should be banned too.

Joe Huffman April 21, 2005 6:59 PM

Reid had plastic explosivs but he also had a detonation mechanism (you are right about C4 burning, not exploding). It probably would have worked had he done it in private.

Goon April 21, 2005 9:06 PM

When I flew back home for xmas I realized that I had the means to cause my airplane to crash with just what I had in my carry-on stuff.

Scosol said, “While in Iowa, I bought a 750ml bottle of the real Everclear (95% pure alcohol or something)- it was in my carry-on bag along with some thin socks, and I had a lighter in my pocket.”

Basically you just admitted to taking a prohibited item aboard a comerical airline. Ever clear is prohibited aboard a commerical airline and would/should be confiscated if it was detected.

Pyeman April 22, 2005 5:37 AM

What I don’t understand is you have to eat your meal with a daft plastic knife, yet your drinks or duty free booze purchases come in real glass, which would be much more lethal if broken…

Clive Robinson April 22, 2005 8:34 AM

@ anon

For your information all plastic explosive contain a hydrocarbon (like gas oil etc) as one of the bases, and this burns rather well with some of the other chemicals in them (I too have used C4 instead of heximethan tablets for heating my tin of compo when a squadie).

One of the ways the Police verify what type of explosive was used is to ask what colour the smoke was from eye witnesses. If it’s white it’s something like gun powder/cotton (the most frequently used explosive used in the US for illeagle acts). If black it contained fuel/gas oil or other hydrocarbon and was therfore probably a high explosive (ie a burn rate greater than the speed of sound).

For a plastic explosive to work you need to get over the entropy hump, you usually use a blasting cap to set of det cord or the equivalent which sets of the plastic explosive.

This inability to explode from burning / physical shock is one of the properties that makes Plastic explosive so desirable from the militry point of view.

It is also quite difficult to make a detonator for this sort of thing which is why terorists usually get them from somewhere (like Arizona with a drivers licence etc). Detonators like comercial explosives usually contain inert materials that make a signiture to identify the manufacture and batch.

As a teenager I used to make explosions for fun in the local farm land around where I used to live starting with fireworks and working my way up, back then it was regarded as youthful high spirits, nowadays however it’s not 🙁

Remember that in most countries post 9/11 making explosives at home even just for fun is regarded as a terorist act (I read in the newspapers recently that a UK man was sent down for around three years just for a small amount even though there was no evidence given in the press that he was going to use it for any activity off of his own property).

Patrick April 23, 2005 7:21 AM

Lighters and the other banned products are by themself not dangerous. Passenger using them may missuse theses products. To when the ban of the passenger ?

Richard April 24, 2005 3:47 AM

London to Tobago, lighters OK; Tobago to London, lighters banned. Because of such stupid inconsistency, my girlfriend nearly lost her precious Dunhill lighter recently. The answer: give the lighter to the woman on the check-in desk, and get her to smuggle it past security for you.

Roger April 25, 2005 7:14 PM

I am far from convinced that this has anything to do with security; it brings US regulations in line with what many other countries are already doing, under a treaty of which the US is also a signatory, but which has nothing to do with terrorism.

Cigarette lighters and matchbooks can and have started accidental fires on aircraft. When these fires start in the luggage hold or cabin baggage, they may be seriously engaged before detection, so they are a serious safety hazard. Consequently, in many countries (and for quite a few years already) butane lighters have been prohibited on aircraft, liquid fuelled lighters permitted only if the fuel tank is drained, and small numbers of matchbooks permitted only if carried directly on the person, rather than cabin baggage.

(The reason for the latter rule is that matches have been known to ignite in luggage due to engine vibration, and the human torso provides a good vibration damper; additionally, the passenger is more likely to immediately notice the fire!)

I consider it more likely than not that this restriction is simply bringing the US in line with international civil aviation safety rules; the worrying thing is that terrorism is again being used as a justification!

John Kelsey April 26, 2005 9:16 AM

Banning lighters may be a good safety rule, but I don’t think it will keep a determined attacker from starting a fire. People have been messing around with fire for untold thousands of years, and we’re really pretty good at starting, building, and maintaining fires by now. (Similarly, blunt and edged weapons are hard to keep out of the hands of determined people by securtiy screening.)

I assume a competent and smart person can probably work out how to bring down the plane he’s on. This is bad, but not nearly so bad as the 9/11 style turn-the-plane-into-a-cruise-missile attack.


Moondog Spot! May 5, 2005 4:30 PM

Anything, and I mean anything, can be used as a weapon. The person using it is the problem, not the item itself. Guns, for instance, kill absolutly NO ONE. The bullet can IF the operator fires it. However, I have fired a bullet with a pair of pliers and a ball-peen hammer, no gun needed.

I have seen inmates use perfectly normal every day items as lethal weapons. And since their access to dangerous items is limited, the terrorists should have no problems doing anything that they want.

That said, I see no alternative except totally locking down this country and kicking out all non-natural Americans.
(see dictionary for SARCASTIC)

We seem to be getting away from the root problem. They hate us. Why? We invade their countries and try (usually succeding) to change them into extentions of us. They are NOT us. They do not want to be us. And I really can’t blame them for getting mad about it. If left alone, they might just leave US alone, hmm? Makes since to me. But maybe I just don’t see the ‘big picture’. I am happy NOT forcing my ways on others. Letting them live their OWN lives as they see fit. NOT judging them or their way of life. And NOT forcing my religion on anyone else. Maybe that sounds crazy to you but I actually believe in the Constitution of the United States. And I don’t see any where in it that says I have to hate, change, or police any other countries’ citizens.

You can agree with me or not. That is your right.

Nice thing to have, huh?


WhatsFunnyToMo May 22, 2006 6:44 PM

Several of you mentioned “lower cabin air pressures” Most planes are kept near sea level pressures no matter how high they fly. I’ve verified this with a number of flight engineers over the years.

Airplanes are kept pressurized by simply pushing more air in than escapes from the millions of air leaks in the plane. Air exchange is quite high. As for the risks of TB, its kept in the plane by its ability to cling to materials such as cloth and the like. Increasing the air exchange rate would not significantly reduce this risk.

As for the C4 discussion, once lit on fire and burning all you have to do is rapidly compress it, such as stomping on it to make it explode. You can cook all day with it, just dont try to stomp out the fire or you’ll loose your foot is what I was always told.

Has anyone considered the risks of two seperate items on a plane such as Clorox bleach placed in a small liqure bottle mixed with break fluid from a bottle of lotion. Both would go undetected through even on the same person yet combined makes a horrible gas…

What about Salt Peter, sulfer and charcoal with a little rubbing alcohol to mix them together and then let dry for 30 minutes or so and a match to light it.

What about a harmless pound of flour and a match (ever see a grain elevator explode)???

There are millions of combinations of things that noone would think twice about yet combined can have interesting results.

The only way to truly make airtravel safe is to issue sterile clothing to each passenger and allow NOTHING to be carried on, and even then I doubt that you would be protected 100%.

There’s a point when we as Americans need to draw the line and say to the Government that we don’t WANT them to protect us from every last little dangerous things. Eventually someone will realize that the only way to make us perfectly safe from each other is not to socialize at all…. Oh wait the internet is working on that.

smokey July 10, 2006 8:12 PM

why not issue a ticket when you hand in a lighter then at the end of the flight you hand in the ticket and are given another lighter? (that someone else left behind) It would save airport authorities having to destroy them and save smokers from panicking because they can’t light up.

smokey July 10, 2006 8:22 PM

why not issue a ticket when you hand in a lighter then at the end of the flight you hand in the ticket and are given another lighter? (that someone else left behind) It would save airport authorities having to destroy them and save smokers from panicking because they can’t light up.

al August 10, 2006 5:16 PM

why is hold baggage safer than hand baggage? The screening is no more sophisticated and detonation can be remotely activated or timed. And yet passengers today are not allowed any hand baggage. Because xrays can’t detect nitro. Why is itsafer in the hold?

Lopanov November 14, 2006 4:04 AM

You can order the book on E-mail:

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Bel. : 2006. – 620 with.

 ISBN 5-94300-040-3

  In the book the review of researches is executed in the field of explosive processes, physical and chemical properties, ways of reception, a history of creation of explosives are stated. Definition of explosive processes, as limiting, critical processes is given. Data on classifications of explosions, methods of calculation of parameters, modelling of nuclear explosive processes are submitted. The statement of the theory of explosive processes can form a basis for perfection of technology of reception  explosive materials. 
  The basic are submitted chemical, nuclear isomer, nuclear and thermonuclear explosives. The review and the analysis of researches as a result of which existence of antisubstance is predicted, an opportunity of reception explosive materials is executed on the basis of antisubstance. 
  The book is intended for the experts working in the field of safety of ability to live, militarians, engineers, scientific, the readers who are were interested in a history of creation of explosives.

Otto Lagarhus December 29, 2006 7:09 AM

Just noticed that imposter used my name as signature for an input regarding security on this site. This is an imposter, not daring to stand by his own opinions.
And I do not agree with his rather unprofessional comments.


Otto Lagarhus

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