Samsung's Galaxy 7 Note smartphones caused a stir recently after a phone started smoking on a Southwest Airlines flight, prompting an emergency evacuation and the Federal Aviation Administration to ban the devices due to fire hazards. The Galaxy 7 Note smartphones "are likely to create sparks or generate a dangerous amount of heat, which could cause smoke or a fire aboard an aircraft," an FAA spokesperson told U.S. News. In fact, the Department of Transportation banned both the original and replacement Note 7 electronic devices from U.S. air travel. But the in-flight Samsung flare up – and 30-plus other sparking or exploding battery issues in recent weeks – magnifies broader safety concerns not only with the Note 7's combustible design, but other electronics powered by lithium-ion batteries, including personal laptops and tablets.
And that's not all. Airplane fires aren't the only impending threat from using digital devices at 35,000 feet. Though the risk of a portable electronic device causing an accident is low, cellphones could interfere with communication systems by transmitting signals that briefly disrupt the radio frequency between air traffic control and pilots. While innovative technology on newer airplanes have made interference a rarity, there are rules and risks fliers need to understand to avoid putting themselves or fellow passengers and crew in danger. For this reason, U.S. News solicited guidance from air travel pros and fire safety experts to understand advisories, minimize hazards and help you stay prepared and safe in flight.
Why Multiple Electronic Devices Pose Safety Risks
"Most of the devices are safe to use," says Albert Moussa, president of the fire safety business BlazeTech and a consultant on airplane fire hazards. But two problems have come up recently, he explains. Aside from the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which had a malfunction due to its battery design, another more subtle development aboard aircrafts are mechanical seats, he explains. These seats feature a motor, allowing passengers to recline and stretch out completely in flight. "The issue is if your phone or iPad falls in the crack of the seat," he says, which could activate the mechanism, crush the device and battery and release active fluid that could start a fire. This was the case on a recent trans-Pacific Qantas flight, when a flier's cellphone was destroyed inside a business-class seat and the phone's battery caught fire. The more battery cells a device has, the higher the risk, Moussa explains.
"Almost all airline passengers are carrying some kind of a smartphone," says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst for Atmosphere Research Group. If you are planning to carry a digital device on an airplane, including a laptop, "turn it off and unplug the device from the outlet," he cautions.
Carriers Have Protocols in Place to Contain Fires
Given escalating risks with portable personal electronics, should you be afraid to fly? "Absolutely not," Harteveldt says. "The FAA is not going to put passengers, crew members of the aircraft itself at risk," he says. Aside from banning fire-prone Samsung Galaxy 7 devices, airlines feature fire-proof bags to contain fires.
"The most important thing is the FAA is aware of the problem," Moussa says. Devices like flame-resistant bags feature a fire-proof material and are designed to contain electronics such as laptops and mobile phones if they overheat or catch fire. Delta recently announced that it would add fire-containment bags to its 900 aircrafts to protect against fires and overheating caused by lithium batteries, and other carriers, including Alaska Airlines and Virgin America have added the bags to their planes as well.
You Should Switch Your Phone to Airplane Mode
While the FAA permitted airlines to expand the use of portable electronic devices in flight in October 2013, voice communication is prohibited. So, why allow increased use of digital devices if interference is a concern for pilots? In 1991, the Federal Communications Commission banned the use of cellphones due to concerns over interference, but now "avionics have been designed so that they're less susceptible," Harteveldt explains.
"What I can say if people start to, on their own, make their decisions, not listen to instructions, [is that] it's a slippery slope," Moussa says. According to Taylor Garland, a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants, it's essential to switch your phone to airplane mode, "put down the portable electronics and listen to your flight attendants' safety briefing and instructions." Garland also cautions, "if you're bringing other portable electronics with you, be sure to keep them in your carry-on and make them easily accessible."
You Must Stay Mindful of Your Technology
"The less you bring with you, the better," Moussa says. There is always a risk that laptops, e-cigarettes, batteries and chargers can ignite, smoke and overheat. "Laptops have ignited in airports and in various locations," he cautions, emphasizing that an "airplane is a very precarious system." In fact, there is a new requirement from the FAA that prohibits the shipment of batteries in bulk in planes that carry both people and cargo, as there have been at least three major incidents involving lithium batteries on cargo planes, he says. What does that mean for you? You should be mindful of what you carry and what you send. For example, if you send a package and you don't understand the risk or declare it properly, it could slip through, he says.
Also consider safety before charging your devices at 35,000 feet. Harteveldt suggests asking yourself: "Are you using a safe electrical plug? Is the outlet safe? If you're using a USB charge, are you drawing too much current?" For more information on safety precautions when traveling with personal electronics containing lithium batteries, visit the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration webpage and review the FAA Portable Electronic Devices page.
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