When it comes to using your PED in-flight, mind the gap


The commotion over my shoulder was a bit jarring. Having spent the prior 9-ish hours mostly gorging on food and drink, plus catching the occasional nap, I was quite enjoying the long, business class flight between continents. But the commotion grew and soon multiple flight attendants were involved along with the gentleman two seats over. I assumed that perhaps the issue was his decision to walk around in just his boxer shorts but that was not the case. He had lost his iPhone to the seat and the group was working on what, if anything, could be done to recover it.

By the time I got over to look it was clear the phone would not be recovered. At least not in a usable form. The case was bent, the screen had popped out and cracked. And yet it was still powered on. Clearly the phone was still working, or at least trying to. It is both impressively resilient but also somewhat disconcerting. The risks associated with Lithium batteries are well documented, particularly when it comes to fires.

Last February French safety authorities determined that a fire on an Air France Boeing 777-200 was traced to a crushed Lithium–Polymer-type battery in a personal electronic device (PED) that fell into the seat mechanism. The event was deemed to be similar to a separate earlier fire on an Air France 777.

Lithium-ion batteries are relatively fragile. And when they fail the results can be spectacular. Even a small Li-Ion battery, such as one found in a phone, can cause quite an incident should it be crushed, bent or otherwise damaged. I tried to work it out for a few minutes and the rest of the gaggle spent some time on it as well, using coat hangers, tongs and pretty much whatever else was available at hand. Alas, the phone was quite firmly jammed in and did not budge.

Admittedly, at the time I was more thinking about what the likely diversion point would be and if it was a route I’d previously flown or not more than I was thinking about the potential for an actual serious incident to befall our plane. And also how I was happy it was not my new device crushed and destroyed in the bowels of my seat.

I presume that mechanics managed to free it upon our arrival in New York; I didn’t stick around to find out. And, of course, there was not a major incident as a result so this battery survived the ordeal. Still, this is the sort of thing which can have much larger consequences. And the industry today does not seem to have any particular regulations or guidelines about such, though there are rules about similar batteries in checked bags or as cargo shipments. Plenty of potential for issues. Hopefully the lucky streak continues.

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