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Why did a smartphone cause a British Airways seat fire?

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How dangerous is the risk to an aircraft from a mobile phone trapped in a seat mechanism?

The Air Acccident Investigation Branch has published an interesting report into a small fire which occured on a British Airways flight last October. It is an interesting insight into the risks caused by trapped mobile phones.

A British Airways Boeing 787-9 was flying from Miami to Heathrow on 20th October 2020. The aircraft was about to begin its descent and, as usual, passengers were woken to prepare for landing.

One passenger moved their Club World seat from the flat position into the upright position, before getting up and heading to the loo.

Whilst clearing the bedding, cabin crew noticed a strong smell and a charging cable which disappeared into the seat mechanism.

The smell grew stronger and was follwed by a hissing sound and a large plume of grey smoke when was emitted from the seat in a ‘tornado’ motion. An orange glow was seen in the seat area amongst the smoke.

The seat padding was pulled back to reveal a mobile phone trapped in the seat mechanism. A chemical fire extinguisher was used on the device.

Does this happen often?

It seems so.

The Civil Aviation Authority reviewed its database and found 166 previous
reports of personal electronic devices becoming trapped in passenger seats in the last five years.

42 of these events resulted in a fire or smoke in the cabin. This is one fire or smoke incident every six weeks on a flight to or from the UK.

What is being done to prevent a future incident?

Not much, in reality.

There are no guidelines which insist that aircraft seats are designed in a way which makes it impossible for a personal electronic device to become trapped.

Manufacturers are voluntarily trying to deal with the issue, but it is challenging to design moving seats that eliminates the chance that a device can fall into the mechanism.

Manufacturers are also in a permanent game of catch-up, with devices continually getting smaller and thinner and so at risk of slipping into ever smaller spaces.

As a result of this incident, the trade body which voluntarily draws up standards for aircraft seating has been ‘requested’ to come up with standards or recommended practices for seat designs which would minimise the risk of devices being crushed.


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Comments (63)

  • Alex Sm says:

    Why does the illustration to this article depict A350 while the story is about B787?

  • SIMON HILL says:

    On our last flight on 6 Jan 2020 SFO-LHR on a 747 my wife and I had centre seats in First (the only adjacent ones – she has dementia and needs to be able to see me and hold hands etc.) which had no storage space whatsoever. After the meal I went to the loo, having perched my power bank (about same size as my iPhone 6S) on the arm of the seat for lack of anywhere else to put it. On return the power bank was nowhere to be seen around my by now made-up bed. So it was the crew (not ‘idiot customer’) who dropped it into the seat mechanism. I then stripped the seat to search inside, moving it from flat to upright several times, but unable to reach the powerbank. There then ensued a hunt by one member of the crew after another trying to extract it, which went on for 45-60 minutes (with me wanting to sleep, standing nearby) by when the head steward had come to hear of it. She immediately instructed the seat should not be moved from its by now bolt upright position – overnight, in First, with 8 hours yet to go to LHR! I was found another seat but not within sight or hand-holding distance of my wife who rapidly became upset. One of the crew spotted the situation and then sat next to my wife on crew seats, engaging her in conversation, during which time I eventually got a couple of hours of lie-flat sleep. Nothing more was said thereafter about the inconvenience (or loss of my power bank!). Must be one of the worst First horror stories?

  • Amanda Burnby says:

    Thank you Nick, finally somebody said it .. Responsibility of the passenger !!
    I was cabin crew for 30+ years & it was like pulling teeth trying to get passengers 1) off their phones when not supposed to be using them 2) unplugging them before settling down to sleep.
    Of all the incidences that can happen , there is NOTHING more frightening than a fire onboard .. With lights down it can go unnoticed & with limited amount of fire extinguishers, your worst nightmare. ( On 747’s which I flew on , there were 3 minutes worth of bcf extinguishers, for an aircraft with almost 400 passengers).
    With SO many areas & reasons a fire can start on an aircraft, the very least a passenger can do is to be responsible for their own devices.. Crew have a seriously heavy workload as it is without having to nanny these people who are well able to understand the safety instructions but for some inexplicable reason , chose not to.

  • AndyC says:

    “…which occured on a British Airways flight…”

    *occurred*

    • Lord Doncaster says:

      Indeed. Even Americans use ‘occurred’. I have to proofread a lot of American docs and it erks me to see ‘traveled’ ‘traveler’ etc

  • Ken Williams says:

    Having flown well nearly 350 times covering around 300,000 miles and having watched my fellow passengers in action I can testify to the appalling arrogance and stupidity of some passengers, happily a small percentage but nevertheless a pain in TB.
    They take no notice of safety instructions, unbuckle seat belts and leave their seats before the aircraft has come to a halt (VERY DANGEROUS), talk to Cabin Staff as though they are dirt, ignore polite requests to comply with said safety regulations, etc etc etc.
    THEN, when something goes wrong they are the first to start whingeing and whining and reaching for their Solicitors.
    Thank heavens I don’t have to fly anymore except for holiday purposes- the most uncivilised form of transport ever invented.
    As for parting folk company from their wretched mobiles (yes, we have on each thank you!!) dream on Cabin Crew.

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