Why Airlines Warn Passengers Not to Retrieve Cell Phones That Fall Between Seats

by SharonKurheg

Over the years, the safety announcements that flight attendants tell you before your plane takes off have undergone small changes. When smoking became verboten on planes, that was, of course, added. During the Covid pandemic, passengers were reminded to remove their personal face mask before using the oxygen mask, in the event of an emergency. And maybe it’s just my imagination,  but after this photo was posted on Twitter in 2018, I think FAs started to be a little more specific about covering your mouth AND NOSE with said oxygen mask. #stupidpeople

a group of people on a planeIn recent years, there’s been another addition to the safety spiel – if you drop your cell phone and it goes in between the seats, you shouldn’t try to retrieve it yourself. Instead, you should ask a flight attendant to help you get it.

I’m capable of getting my phone myself. Why can’t I?

Of course most people are physically able to retrieve their own phones. But that’s not the issue. The problem is that cell phones use lithium-ion batteries, which are more sensitive to physical stress than AA, AAA, C, D and the other alkaline batteries typically used in toys, flashlights, etc.

The concern is while you’re fishing around, groping for the phone and possibly reclining/unreclining your seat, the phone and that lithium-ion battery could get squashed and potentially cause an onboard fire.

It’s happened before:

  • In 2020, a passenger’s cell phone on a British Airways flight started smoking when a passenger, not realizing their cell phone had dropped, moved his flat-bed seat to the upright position.
  • In 2018, a business class passenger on a Qantas flight dropped their phone while flying on an A380 from Los Angeles to Melbourne. In trying to retrieve the phone, they moved their seat and the phone got crushed in the process. The phone started “smoking” before the cabin crew “contained the situation,” according to a Qantas spokesperson.
  • A similar incident happened in 2016. Coincidentally, it was also a Qantas flight, that time going from Sydney to LAX. According to a spokesperson for the airline that time, “The phone’s fallen down into the working’s of the seat and the passenger, in an effort to retrieve it, has moved the seat and as a consequence that’s crushed the phone,” he said. “Because it has a lithium ion battery in it, that then creates the risk of the phone actually starting to smoulder because of the nature of those batteries.”

All told, there have been nearly 70 incidents of cell phones catching on fire or emitting smoke on planes between March 2006 and February 2024.

With that, airlines now warn passengers to allow flight attendants to try to retrieve cell phones if they fall between the seats on the plane since they’re trained to be aware of the intricacies of the seats of the planes they’re working in. Furthermore, even if the FA can’t retrieve the phone, they’ll at least know which seat has a phone stuck, so they can pay more attention to where smoke or fire could potentially start.

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