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.

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.

Smart luggage with unremovable batteries  (American Airlines first to set safety standard)
Spare lithium-ion battery
Portable battery bank
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)