This morning’s battery fire on board Alaska Airlines flight 17, which caused the diversion of the Newark-Seattle flight to Buffalo, was caused by a phablet-based GuestLogix point-of-sale terminal new to the airline, a spokesperson confirmed to Runway Girl Network today.
“It was the GuestLogix sleeve battery (though we do not use the Samsung tablets),” Alaska Airlines’ spokesperson said. According to GuestLogix, over 80 airlines use its various point-of-sale products.
Alaska Airlines has been using the terminals for approximately a month, the spokesperson continued. It is unclear precisely which model of the GuestLogix line is involved, although a significant part of the company’s products include “custom-built sleeves with integrated 2D scanner, MSR reader, Chip & Pin reader, Contactless reader, and optional printer for Windows, Android and iOS based smartphones and tablets. The sleeves include standard, as well as extended battery options allowing for longer periods of usage without needing to recharge,” according to GuestLogix’ website.
The Finnair implementation of GuestLogix’ point-of-sale and retailing platform was a finalist in last month’s APEX Technology Awards (which, disclosure: this writer and RGN contributor Jason Rabinowitz were on the judging panel for the finals). This implementation used Samsung Galaxy Tab devices.
RGN reached a GuestLogix PR representative, but the company has not yet responded to RGN’s queries. The representative did note the Thanksgiving holiday in Canada, where GuestLogix is headquartered.
GuestLogix’ press releases do not explicity reveal the device used either. However, a third quarter financial rundown for 2014 names Alaska Airlines, and of the company’s unnamed customer 2014 press releases the only one that matches the airline type and products in the Q3 rundown specifies the Galaxy Note 3.0 phablet as the device used.
Alaska Airlines, meanwhile, was not able to confirm the model or the commercial off-the-shelf phablet it contains, but confirmed that the model it uses was not introduced as the result of the recent liability switch around chip vs magnetic stripe cards.
One of the key strengths of GuestLogix’ systems is that they leverage commercial off the shelf technologies. One of its key weaknesses would appear to be those technologies’ vulnerabilities to thermal runway incidents. The consequences of those incidents can be catastrophic.
Where there’s smoke there’s fire — and firefighting concerns
Alaska Airlines, meanwhile, quietly issued a statement on its blog — notably, not a press release, nor even on the front page of its blog, but accessible only from a link which it emailed to RGN. As this story goes to press, the airline had not released the link publicly via its Twitter account. Notably:
The credit card reader, a mobile device which is used to take payment for onboard food and beverage purchases, began smoking from what appeared to be the battery compartment of the device.
The flight attendent took the malfunctioning card reader to the galley at the rear of the aircraft after it overheated.
While there were no flames at any point during the flight, the flight crew did use a fire extinguisher to stop the device from smoking while the captain made arrangements for an emergency landing in Buffalo, New York.
“Contrary to what has been reported, there was no fire onboard the aircraft,” the airline concludes. (Emphasis Alaska Airlines’.)
Yet where there’s smoke, there’s… fire — or pyrolysis. At the risk of being glib, the question of whether the lithium battery was just smoking or actively on fire is an important one.
A search of the FAA’s website reveals an Advisory Circular (from 1994, but the definition of smoke will be similar twenty years on) concerning “Smoke detection, penetration and evacuation tests and related flight manual emergency procedures”, where the agency defines smoke thus: “The airborne solid and liquid particulates and gases evolved when material undergoes pyrolysis or combustion, together with the quantity that is entrained or otherwise mixed into the mass.” Whether this was a pyrolysis event (no oxygen or other halogen involved) or a fire (oxygen, flames and all) may seem irrelevant, but the FAA firefighting guidelines do differ.
“Alaska’s procedures are based on current FAA guidance, which is to utilize a Halon or water extinguisher, followed by dousing with water or other non-alcoholic liquids to cool the device and prevent additional battery cells from reaching thermal runaway,” an airline spokesperson told RGN.
The FAA would appear to be closed today for the US Columbus Day federal holiday and did not respond to RGN’s queries. However, use of extinguishant in the absence of fire — which is what Alaska says was the case — would appear to be in contradiction of recent joint US FAA and UK CAA recommendations, which recommend an extinguisher only in the event of fire, or when smoke is seen emanating from an overhead bin.
The following procedures are recommended for fighting a fire in a lithium-type-battery-powered PED. The procedures consist of two phases: extinguishing the fire, and cooling the remaining cells to stop thermal runaway.
(1) Utilize a halon, halon replacement, or water extinguisher to extinguish the fire and prevent its spread to additional flammable materials.
(2) After extinguishing the fire, douse the device with water, an aqueous-based extinguishing agent, or other nonalcoholic liquids to cool the device and prevent additional battery cells from reaching thermal runaway.
WARNING: Do not attempt to pick up and move a smoking or burning device! You may be injured.
RGN asked the airline for information about what specifically happened during the event, but the spokesperson said that it is still under investigation and that details were not available to be shared.
If there was a fire, then extinguishant was appropriate. But if there was not, as the airline said in its statement, there would appear to be some learning to be done around the best response. Fortunately, this crew appears to have reacted in a way that was appropriate to the specific situation, and indeed there were no injuries on board.
But even so, there are clearly many questions to be answered — and important industry-wide lessons to be learned — about the way that crew respond to lithium battery fires, including in passenger PEDs, electronic flight bags, or crew-issued devices like the phablets or tablets used for customer service and operational purposes.