Flight Attendant Extinguishes Smoldering iPhone

Is transporting mobile devices safe?



Australian airline Regional Express issued a statement warning that an Apple iPhone belonging to a passenger aboard a flight from Lismore to Sydney last week suddenly “started emitting a significant amount of dense smoke, accompanied by a red glow” after the airplane landed in Sydney. A flight attendant took possession of the glowing phone and managed to extinguish it. The iPhone incident was reported to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) for investigation.

While no passengers were hurt and millions of iPhones and other mobile devices have safely traveled the skies, the incident once again calls to question the safety of carrying lithium batteries on airplanes. The Department of Transportation issued a notice of proposed rulemaking in January 2010 recommending stricter transportation rules for lithium batteries. The proposal stated: “Since 1991, PHMSA [Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration] and the FAA have identified over 40 air transport-related incidents and numerous additional non-transport incidents involving lithium batteries and devices powered by lithium batteries.”

No recommendations were made related to batteries carried by passengers, presumably because the incidents don’t cause major explosions and can be managed by the cabin crew as was the case in Australia. The proposed rule made recommendations for the packaging and handling of batteries in the cargo areas. But the rule was halted by Congress, which put forth legislation in April that prevents any limits on air shipment of lithium batteries that go beyond international standards. Bloomberg news service reported that this legislation saves companies that produce devices using such batteries $1.13 billion “in packaging, transportation, logistical and training costs.”