Australian safety warning issued after headphones explode during flight

Alex Kidman 15 March 2017 NEWS

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Be careful with your gadgets, lest they turn on you.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has issued a general safety warning for travellers using electronic devices in-flight after a recent incident on a flight from Beijing to Melbourne.

According to the ATSB, a passenger using a pair of battery-operated headphones fell asleep, only to awake to "a loud explosion".

"As I went to turn around I felt burning on my face,” she said. “I just grabbed my face, which caused the headphones to go around my neck. I continued to feel burning so I grabbed them off and threw them on the floor. They were sparking and had small amounts of fire. As I went to stamp my foot on them the flight attendants were already there with a bucket of water to pour on them. They put them into the bucket at the rear of the plane."

Both the battery and the cover for the battery melted and were stuck to the floor of the aircraft for the remainder of the flight. The fire also caused the rest of the journey to be an unpleasant one.

"People were coughing and choking the entire way home,” the passenger said.

The ATSB concluded that it was most likely the batteries in the device that caught fire and did not disclose the make or model of the headphones involved.

In-flight gadget fires: What can I do?

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There’s not enough detail in this particular story to draw any specific conclusions. It’s feasible that the device in question may have already been malfunctioning, or that it may have been already damaged in some way. If either scenario is true, then that’s a very different kind of problem but a reminder nonetheless that the batteries in many electronic devices are delicate instruments. Treat them badly and they’ll respond in kind.

You could also ask if the headphones in question were an off-brand model, where quality control might not be up to scratch. Then again, as we saw last year with the Samsung Note 7, even being on-brand isn't a safety guarantee.

So what can you do to keep yourself safe when travelling with battery-powered equipment?

There are a few simple guidelines you can follow before taking any kind of battery or battery-powered device on a flight, for your own safety and the safety and comfort of others:

  • Don’t check that battery (into your luggage). For most smaller batteries, you’re generally allowed to take them with you onto the plane, but only as part of your carry-on luggage. You're specifically prohibited from placing the same batteries into your checked luggage, even though they will be going on the same plane as you are. That’s because if something akin to the headphone explosion does occur, it’s better to quickly know about it and quench it, rather than have a fire start in the cargo hold. This is part of the standard safety questions you should be asked at check-in, but it’s worth reiterating it in any case.
  • Ask your airline first. For larger capacity batteries (100Wh and above) you should check with your airline well before flying to make sure the battery is okay to take on the plane. Some larger-capacity batteries may be allowed on the flight but will be marked as declared dangerous goods.
  • Keep an eye on the condition of your batteries and devices. Lithium-ion batteries are generally safe, with millions of devices using them every day. But they can fail and there are some telltale signs to watch out for if failure is about to occur. The classic sign of an imminent failure is a bulging battery. If either your phone with a sealed battery or a battery pack bulges in a way it never used to, it’s almost certainly on the verge of failing. Likewise, if there is any fluid escaping from it, or if you notice after charging that it’s considerably warmer than it used to be, things are not good internally. If you’re in doubt, don’t travel with a battery or battery pack that shows signs of being near failure.
  • Don’t scramble after dropped devices. It’s becoming more common for the in-flight safety demonstration on planes to include a note about dropped electronic devices. You’re typically warned not to try to retrieve dropped items by shifting your seat around. This isn’t a matter of the airline worrying about your personal possessions, but rather a matter of what the batteries inside the device might do if crushed or broken open. If you do drop your phone into your seat, consult with the flight crew rather than try to fish it out yourself.

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