A Qantas 747 jumbo jet was 6 and a half hours into its flight to Los Angeles when a passenger’s cell phone slipped between seats and caught fire. The battery of the device was crushed when the passenger adjusted the seat while trying to retrieve the lost phone. The battery of the phone, just like the one in your own smartphone, immediately began hissing, releasing smoke and erupted into flames while the packed aircraft was over the Pacific ocean. The Quantas crew put out the fire using a fire extinguisher through the crevice of the seat twice as they continued to LAX keeping a watchful eye on the danger.

Podcast: Listen my the entire Episode 9 podcast as I discuss how one smartphone caught on fire on a Qantas 747 flight, what crews are trained to do if an electronic device starts to smolder and catch fire, how to fly safely with lithium batteries.

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Click to see Podcast highlights and timecodes
Highlights:

00:36 Which seats are eating phones

01:30 When never to adjust your seat onboard

01:47 How a phone on a Qantas flight caught fire

03:00 What crews are trained to do when phones and lithium battery fires happen onboard

03:30 The most dangerous batteries

04:30 What are most popular causes of lithium battery fires

05:22 Why a runaway lithium battery fire scares me more than any other emergency onboard a flight

05:30 The drunk crazy Russian passenger smoking onboard

06:03 The smart airline first to restrict Smart Luggage that don’t have removable lithium-ion batteries

06:30 How to fly safely with lithium batteries

07:30 Why Lithium fire is a leading theory to the missing MH370 Boeing 777

08:20 Lithium chain reactions are the most dangerous fires

08:38 Traveling with spare batteries

09:30 The worst lithium-ion batteries and how to avoid them

09:53 Denver airport incident that caused TSA X-ray machine to catch fire

10:32 The dangers of eCigarettes

10:54 How rechargeable headphones burned a passenger’s neck

11:23 How crews are trained on safety protocols to deal with fires onboard

12:10 What hissing sounds mean coming from an electronic device

14:02 How you can help with an onboard fire

14:35 Are the airlines doing enough to keep us safe?

15:15 The safest ways to travel with lithium-ion batteries

16:35 Debate: What should be done to make it safer?

 

The slightest damage to a lithium-ion battery found in most phones, tablets and cameras can cause a thermal runaway reaction. It starts with the device heating up, smoldering and bursting into flames when extreme temperatures are reached.

Delta Air Lines has changed their pre-flight safety video to include a line that says, “if you lose your electronic device in your seat, please do not adjust your seat and ask a crew member for assistance.” Many other airlines are starting to include similar warnings as the problem seems to be growing.

Delta safety briefing adds: “If you lose your electronic device in your seat, please do not adjust your seat and ask a crew member for assistance.”

The FAA has conducted a conclusive test showing how failing lithium batteries can overheat and create a chain reaction igniting other nearby batteries.

One of the possible theories behind the mystery of the missing 239 people and presumed crash of Malaysia Boeing 777 flight MH370 is a similar scenario. MH370 manifest shows that it was carrying 440 lbs. of lithium-ion batteries in its cargo hold leading to the theory that a battery fire could have brought down the missing jumbo jet.

Lithium-ion batteries by design are jammed into the latest smartphones and tablets making them extra susceptible to shock, damage and crushing while traveling. Spare batteries and portable power packs are the next biggest safety risk. Airlines are seeing a sharp uptick in these sort of crushed phone onboard incidents but have yet to impose an outright ban of them except in checked baggage where lithium-ion batteries are not permitted.

The most dangerous devices.

  • Smartphone
  • Smart luggage with unremovable batteries  (American Airlines first to set safety standard)
  • Spare lithium-ion battery
  • eCigarette
  • Portable battery bank
  • Tablet
  • Hoverboard
  • Rechargeable headphones

Search if you have a device with a lithium-ion battery that has been recalled and poses a danger.

How to travel with lithium batteries

  • Never in checked baggage.
  • Cover terminals of loose batteries with electrical tape, then placed in individual plastic bag.
  • Avoid overcharging devices.
  • Avoid cheap unbranded batteries.
  • Discontinue use of any damaged battery and dispose of it safely.

iPhone crushed in seat side compartment on Singapore Airlines flight bound for JCL while passenger trying to deploy bed. (credit: flyertalk)

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