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Laptop battery fire forces United flight to land, hospitalizes 4

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/7/2023 Amanda Finnegan, Andrea Sachs
A United Airlines Boeing wide body 777-200 aircraft seen in the air. © Nicolas Economou/Getty Images A United Airlines Boeing wide body 777-200 aircraft seen in the air.

A United Airlines flight returned to San Diego International Airport Tuesday morning after the crew reported a laptop fire in the cabin, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The flight, which was headed to Newark Liberty International Airport, departed San Diego at 7:07 a.m. and returned at 7:51 a.m., according to tracking data from FlightAware. United Airlines said the flight returned “after a customer’s battery pack ignited.”

Four flight attendants were taken to the hospital, United said, while two customers were evaluated on-site.

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The flight later left San Diego for Newark, and no other operations were impacted.

“We thank our crew for their quick actions in prioritizing the safety of everyone on board the aircraft,” United said in a statement.

Lithium batteries can smoke or catch fire when they overheat or get damaged. The FAA requires spare lithium ion and lithium metal batteries, including power banks and cellphone battery charging cases, to be carried in carry-on baggage only. When a bag is gate-checked, all spare lithium batteries and power banks must be removed from the bag.

The FAA has size limits on lithium batteries, but says the requirements allow for “nearly all types of lithium batteries used by the average person in their electronic devices.”

According to FAA data, from March 2006 to October 2022 there were 414 incidents involving lithium batteries and smoke, fire or extreme heat on flights. Battery packs accounted for 179 of the incidents; e-cigarettes and vapes caused 80, and laptops were responsible for 49.

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“There’s definitely a concern,” said Hassan Shahidi, president and chief executive of the Flight Safety Foundation. “We’ve seen the trend not going down, because people are increasingly having more of these devices onboard.”

To reduce the risk, Shahidi says to protect your electronics in a sleeve or its original case. Avoid putting any pressure on it, such as placing it under a heavy object. If your gadget slips between the seats, alert a crew member, who is trained to extract it.

“Don’t move the seat yourself. It could add pressure, and inadvertently cracking or damaging it is not a good thing,” he said. “The crew can take the seat out.”

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If you notice a device spewing fire or smoke, notify a crew member, who can put out the fire by placing the item in a thermal containment bag or using a fire extinguisher. Shahidi warns against throwing the flaming item on the ground and endangering other passengers.

Oxygen masks deploy when there is a loss of pressure, not when a cabin fills up with smoke. The cabin crew will recommend opening up the air vents. “Aircraft circulates air very rapidly, so turning on the fans is very helpful,” he said.


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