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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)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • Tim says:

    “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.” Really? I’m not convinced about that at all. I don’t think Tim Cook got the memo anyway. The smallest iPhone 5 was introduced in 2012 and they’ve only been bigger since. The real question should be: under what circumstances do smart phones with temperamental batteries decide to commit suicide, and is that, as a society, something we can live with?

    • Wally1976 says:

      Yes regarding the size of phones, when I came to buy a new (Android) phone a few months ago (after about 3 years) I couldn’t find a single model that was the same size or smaller than my old one. They were all massive! I ended up buying a refurbished Google Pixel 2 which is a fairly old model and still a bit larger than I’d like ideally.

    • KBuffett says:

      Is the iPhone 12 mini larger than iPhone 5?

      • David Lawton says:

        Yes it is, I’ve owned both , the 12 mini is bigger than a 5 .

  • Susan says:

    Every dollar store/poundshop on the planet sells nifty little pliable phone holders for affixing phones to car windscreens. Rather than redesigning an entire seat could airlines not retrofit something like these, accessible from every seating position, so people have a safe, secure place to put the phone rather than on seatarms/slippery tables etc. And make it a requirement that any phone not in your hand or coat pocket must be in this.

    • Erico1875 says:

      Good thinking Susan.

    • Chrisasaurus says:

      Exactly right Susan – and make the charging point access to it of course so it’s a no brainier to use it

      I lost my phone at least once per TATL flight and I am well aware of the risks of damaged batteries, I’m sure the number of near misses to these near misses is enormous

    • ChrisC says:

      Problem is phones come in all shapes and sizes and they would soon get broken as people try and force too large phones into them or they get caught in bedding etc.

      BA didn’t even replace the iPad holder on the 2 A318s when they got larger ones and that would have only been 64 seats in total!

      People need to take some responsibility themselves and out their phones in one of the cubby holes in the seat.

    • Craig says:

      My thinking too Susan. A retro fit like this would not be cost prohibitive and potentially save lives. Airlines can simply introduce a policy ‘all phones in holders when not in use’

    • NFH says:

      Such holders could include a QI wireless charger, which would encourage passengers to put their phones into them. I think it’s an excellent idea.

    • Alex W says:

      Funnily enough you can’t buy EASA certified aircraft components in a pound shop. However a seat or seat back with a purpose designed phone holder is a good idea.

  • Kurt Kraut says:

    Fly me to Baghdad NOW, or I’ll get my smartphone stuck in my seat!!!

  • meta says:

    For all the commenters above “ a charging cable which disappeared into the seat mechanism.”

    I guess the passenger didn’t get the memo to disconnect the phone from charging cable whilst sleeping. I suspect the phone in itself trapped into the seat wouldn’t have caused the fire, but the phone plugged in.

    • ThinkSquare says:

      Meta: It doesn’t need to be charging. There’s a Bear Grylls episode where he lights a fire by putting a knife through a phone. It’s very effective!

      • Chris Heyes says:

        ThinkSquare But was the phone working after he lit the fire
        Myself I’d have used a match, but maybe Bears haven’t got the same intelligence

      • The Lord says:

        Why didn’t he use the phone to call for help?

    • Joseph Heenan says:

      The report says the device was crushed, so damage to the battery was most likely the primary cause of the fire – most likely one of the cells got shorted out. Most people don’t appreciate quite how dangerous these batteries can be once damaged. The fact that it was potentially charging may have made things a little worse but likely the device would have caught fire regardless.

  • 1ATL says:

    Watch out for upcoming reports as there’ll be another incident coming

  • Sideshow Bob says:

    People are advised in the safety demo that if a mobile phone becomes trapped in the seat not to move it and call a member of the crew. But then again, how many people actually listen intently to the safety demo.

    • Andrew says:

      Yes I’ve noticed that all the airlines mention this in their safety videos now.

      • Alex Sm says:

        No wonder given the number of accidents! This will make a good new episode of Air Crash Investigations

    • Chrisasaurus says:

      The point in this article is that the passenger wasn’t aware it was trapped, which I think is the larger part of the risk here.

      Now, phones are made of metal and it does make me wonder what else a seat would bend if it was stuck in the seat – try it with a finger or two?

    • Ian says:

      The passenger in question didn’t know his phone was trapped, the crew noticed when they cleared his bed.

      • Oh! Matron! says:

        So I think we’ve ascertained that the passenger was the problem not the phone 😃

        • meta says:

          Yes, just put the phone in the storage and don’t charge it if you’re going to sleep. On all my flights since the widespread of smartphones, crew went around and warned that you should not charge the phone while you’re sleeping. I usually just carry a powerbank and put it in storage or my bag.

    • Andrew says:

      Wasn’t that as a consequence of a chap being crushed to death by a seat at a Vue Cinema when he was trying to recover lost phone/keys?

      (Apologies for begging in Graudian link)

      https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/apr/07/vue-admits-failures-over-cinema-goer-crushed-to-death-by-seat-in-birmingham

  • Rupert one says:

    I’ve been on a BA flight a few years ago that had to make an emergency landing. The flight was Seoul to LHR. A trapped mobile phone caught in a business class seat caused the electrics to trip. A Dreamliner doing a figure of 8 dumping fuel rapidly descending was a sight to behold. The decent was rapid. We landed at an old soviet airbase called Irkutsk in Siberia. It was August though. The runway was a bit bumpy. We were there for a few hours. The plane had to be refilled from old trucks. We took off again after the all clear, but no in flight entertainment. Who needed it. But bravo BA cabin flight crew and pilot. So professional.

  • Roger Jones says:

    Good luck trying to place restrictions on mobile phones during flights.

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