Samsung Note 7 Upside, Igniting New Thinking on In Flight Fires

October 15, 2016 / 2 Comments

brian-greens-phoneAt noon today, October 15th,  Samsung Note 7 phones will no longer be allowed on airplanes, the U.S. Department of Transportation has ruled.

“The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 device is considered a forbidden hazardous material,” reads the press release issued by the DOT. Passengers carrying one will be denied boarding and those who try to evade the ban surreptitiously, “are increasing the risk of a catastrophic incident” and could be subject to prosecution.

Samsung is still unable to identify what about its newest gadget is causing the batteries to go into thermal runaway, spewing flames and toxic smoke. But the Samsung mystery is prompting a few airlines to get out ahead of the Federal Aviation Administration which has no requirement for battery fire containment devices and begin to stock the cabin and cockpit with them.

I’ve written about this for The New York Times, interviewing Michael Gilchrist owner of PlaneGard about a fancy metal case he sells to Air Tahiti Nui, for its long-haul flights. RunwayGirlNetwork’s Mary Kirby recently interviewed Baker Aviation about its soft-sided bag. Both are billed as protecting flight crew and passengers from the special hazards of lithium ion. Its not just the fire and the explosions that send small but super-hot particles flying. The smoke is “a poisonous organic vapor mixed with cyanide gas and carbon monoxide,” says Gilchrist. Lithium ion battery fires aren’t like regular fires, they cannot be extinguished, they must burn their way through the fuel they produce.

laptop-battery-fireWhat strikes me each time I write about this threat, including the costly misjudgment that caused the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to be grounded for 4 months in 2013, I am struck by how little seems to be known about it. No global database records in-flight battery events, which means there’s no way to get a proper understanding the scope of the problem.

As the maker of one of the world’s most popular digital devices, Samsung is in turmoil over the spectacular collapse of the Note 7. Where the smart phone fails with consumers, however, it provides a useful lesson. It points out how unprepared airlines are to deal with the hazard of the lithium ion cargo that passengers enthusiastically bring with them on the airplane.

Read the full statement from the US DOT here.

Categories: Flying Lessons
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2 responses to “Samsung Note 7 Upside, Igniting New Thinking on In Flight Fires”

  1. George Brilmyer says:

    Good point Christine. The number of incidents / fires related to personal electronic devices (PEDs) is hard to nail down because they are under-reported. A report yesterday mentioned 24 this year and the FAA’s cumulative list (see the incidents page at says 171 incidents have occurred prior to Jan 2016. That makes almost 200 most of which have nothing to do with the Note 7 and half of them occurred in the last 3 years.

  2. Maybe I’m missing something here, but it’s striking how quickly and resolutely regulators acted on this, yet for years they dragged their feet on the bigger and more dangerous issue of lithium battery transport in general.

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