Photo courtesy of Thinkstock
Over the past several weeks, worldwide attention has been brought to Samsung and its fluke phone, the Galaxy Note 7. The device was brought under recall because its battery had the nasty habit of bursting into flames, then even after replacement devices were issued, the problem continued. Now, a handful of airlines have taken the smart step of adding fire-containing bags onboard their aircraft.
Friday afternoon, the Department of Transportation issued an emergency order, banning all Galaxy Note 7s from commercial flights, including in cargo. The DOT told the Associated Press that passengers caught with the phones will have them confiscated and may face fines as well. Samsung discontinued production of the popular smartphone earlier this week.
Should a Note 7 be smuggled aboard and catch fire in spite of the ban, Alaska, Delta, and Virgin America are the first airlines to install fire-containing bags on their fleet. The bags are red, and can be closed by velcro and a zipper. They can protect against fires at temperatures of 3,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and retail for $1,800 each. It’s highly likely that the airlines would receive a discount for a bulk purchase. Alaska and Virgin America have the bags on every plane, while Delta said they would be buying them and adding them to planes as soon as possible, with trans-oceanic flights receiving the top priority.
Apart from losing your engine functions, a fire onboard an aircraft is the worst possible scenario. Toxic smoke would incapacitate passengers in a very short period of time, A Southwest Airlines flight in Louisville, Kentucky made headlines recently when it experienced a fire from a Galaxy Note 7 as the passenger was shutting it off prior to departure. After the passenger put the phone in his pocket, he said he heard a pop noise as the phone ignited. He threw the phone into the aisle of the plane. Thankfully, the plane was still at the gate, and the captain called for the fire department. In their training, airline employees are taught that cold water is the best way to extinguish a battery fire, in order to keep it cooled down.
Lithium battery fires are all too common, and industry insiders have preached caution about these batteries for years. Boeing’s introduction of their 787 Dreamliner hit some turbulence as some lithium batteries that power components on the plane experienced what Boeing called “thermal runaway” (overheating) with fires in two new aircraft. As a result, all 787s were grounded for a brief period in 2013. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed Boeing and the FAA for failing to test the batteries to operational extremes.
Last fall, as the popular “Hoverboard” mobility devices gained popularity, several fires among those devices also made the news, and airlines rushed to ban them from being brought onboard. In 2010, a UPS cargo plane carrying a shipment of lithium batteries experienced an unconfined fire, which resulted in the crash of the plane and fatalities of both pilots in Dubai.
It’s not always devices brought onboard by passengers, either. Last October, an Alaska Airlines flight attendant was using a credit card reader during a flight when it began smoking. It was also powered by a lithium battery.
The fire containment kits are made by All-Hands Fire Equipment, and have the product name “Hot Stop.” They also come with protective gloves that allow someone to pick up the burning device then place it in the bag. The bags being bought by the airlines are large enough to hold a laptop computer, in the event that something besides a Note 7 decides to burst into flames.
One could easily question why or how lithium batteries are still allowed on planes at all, but at this point, the Hoverboard and Galaxy Note 7 are the only consumer devices that are banned from flying. Many policies in the aviation industry are reactionary, such as post-9/11 screening requirements, but hopefully it doesn’t take a catastrophic event for regulators to address the threat of lithium batteries to its extent. In the opinion of this writer, Alaska, Delta, and Virgin America are doing the right thing, and the FAA should require the same of every airline. We’ll never get travelers to stop using their devices onboard, so it is imperative that a protective step is taken.