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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.

  • Pablo says:

    Must have been a burner phone.

  • N says:

    I ended up getting v v v v familiar with the inner workings of a BA 787 F seat after losing my wedding ring down the side on the way back from my honeymoon.

    Full marks to the engineers who spent half an hour taking the seat apart at LHR first thing on a Monday morning to retrieve the ring… Those seats are unbelievably complex.

    Also thanks to the flight and cabin crew who were held back on the plane by this search… We ended up getting the crew bus back to terminal, which was very different!

    • Alex Sm says:

      Why were you so keen to take off your ring so soon after the honeymoon?

      • N says:

        Ha!

        Quite.

        • meta says:

          Some people can’t wear a ring overnight when sleeping as their finger gets swollen. My partner is the same.

          • Catalan says:

            Perhaps your partner needs to see a doctor? Surely that shouldn’t be happening regularly.

          • Sadly True says:

            Or have sensitive skin like I have, whereby the pressure of the ring causes discomfort and makes getting to sleep difficult. The ring made of a hypoallergenic material so that is not the problem.
            I also find wearing a watch or a wrist band unbearable after a couple of hours for the same reason.

  • mr_jetlag says:

    it’s the side gap between the armrest and seat where this seems to happen the most, as well as ( in J ) the gap between seat back and cushion on flatbeds. Not sure any seat design will ever eliminate the risk.

  • mark2 says:

    Those seats can be dangerous!
    I once went to change before we landed in Vancouver (F on A380) and the FA changed my bed back to seat, not realising that one of my shoes was under the seat. Given bottle of Lanson pink champagne and agreement to pay for new shoes. Surprisingly difficult to buy mid-range shoes in Canada – either CAD 600 (English) or CAD 95. Actually minor damage repaired by local cobbler at home for £8.50.

  • Stephen says:

    How about if the seat could only be controlled by an app on the passenger’s device?!!!! Obviously downsides as would technically annoying but would make it less likely for devices to become trapped!

  • Chris says:

    An old Lexus I had some leather wrapped foam attached to the centre console that ran the length of the seat. They were rigid enough to stop things falling into the gap. Simple solution; just stitched on.

    The New CW seats presumably address this by having proper storage; and having lids over it

  • Charley Whiskey says:

    If this reported case was in BA Club with their previous awful seat the chances of it happening would be so much higher due to the totally ridiculous lack of safe and convenient storage space. Susan has it right: provide a convenient, accessible and inherently safe charging and storage area when designing the seat. Won’t stop all such incidents but would certainly reduce them.

  • Nick says:

    BA engineers did redesign the CW seat when the 787s came in to make it harder for phones to fall into the mechanism – this is why the seat covering is different from those on the 777, for example. But it’s impossible to design a seat with the moveable features customers want without there being some room for the mechanism to work.

    But what I find most interesting is that the report puts the onus on manufacturers to change design, but makes no mention at all of the responsibility on idiot customers to a) make sure it doesn’t fall in, and b) pay attention to the safety briefing (and TOD announcements by crew) making it clear how dangerous it is. Sign of the times I suppose.

    • meta says:

      +1 If the crew warns you not to charge when you’re sleeping, then you don’t.

    • RichS says:

      Unfortunately not just a sign of current times – how long has smoking on planes been banned, but they are still required to provide ashtrays in the toilets because they know people will break the rules? Nothing new about some people thinking the rules don’t apply to them.

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