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Someone else will have to touch my most touched possession.
Someone else will have to touch my most touched possession.

SocietyMay 27, 2024

Why can’t I pick up my own dropped phone on a plane?

Someone else will have to touch my most touched possession.
Someone else will have to touch my most touched possession.

One anxiously attentive passenger pays attention to an in-flight safety video, and wonders ‘Why can’t I pick up my own phone?’

I would describe the brain activity of passengers watching in-flight safety videos as similar to a golden labrador. The areas firing up neurons are those in the regions dedicated to food, sleep and not much else. Most of us already know how to buckle a buckle and that the life vest under the seat can be inflated by pulling on the tab or blowing into the little pipe. Most of us catching a flight have caught a flight before. But, as a Latam airlines passenger recently, I was particularly attentive, since one of their flights was recently described as a “horror plunge“. The safety video was like a bouncing tennis ball, and I, a border collie.

It was filmed on a beach, in some ruins, at a bar. Oxygen masks dropped down from a thatched roof and I was reminded to put one on myself before anyone else. So far so predictable. Then suddenly, someone dropped their phone. It flopped beyond their reclining beach chair and into the sand. A common occurrence, which happens multiple times in any given sitting session. We’ve all become experts at picking or fishing up the phone ourselves and yet, the video said “If you drop a device into your seat, do not try to remove it and immediately notify a crew member.” A flapping hand was raised and a suited flight attendant came to rescue the phone and hand it back.

I looked down at my smudgy phone screen. Do I really need help to rescue you?

An accurate representation of an inflight experience. (Photo: Screengrab of Latam safety video via YouTube.)

Upon making it home safely but without thousands of dollars in compensation, I decided to find out why I apparently can’t be trusted to pick up my own phone. It isn’t just a Latam thing, but across all airlines, or at least the ones that comply with international standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. I got in contact with my nearest and dearest, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). They provided a brief written statement, the important part being:

“This is because passengers can inadvertently crush or damage their phone (or other portable electronic device) by moving seat parts / mechanisms etc which may increase the risk of a lithium battery fire event. This was initiated after actual events on other airlines.”

Lithium batteries in phones mean we can take all our photos, scroll all our feeds and crush all our candies for hours, but they contain highly flammable parts. This is fine when everything is in place and insulated, and can quickly turn to shit when non-candy is crushed. Compromised batteries can “undergo thermal runaway” which involves “violent bursting” and “intense, self-sustaining fire”. This delicateness, dropped in a seat with too many crevices connected to moving and clunky parts? Not for me thank you.

Smoke or fire is not something I have seen in-flight (thankfully) but data from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shows it’s a weekly occurrence, and is on the rise thanks to us constantly carrying around more and more lithium battery powered devices (phones, vapes, power banks). FAA’s reports on the incidents are mostly stories of heroic flight attendants, who quickly saved the day by placing over-heating devices in thermal containment bags. The fireproof bags sometimes blow up like a balloon, probably with toxic gases.

These dangers are the reason lithium batteries and electronic devices aren’t allowed in checked baggage – were they to catch fire in the cargo hold, no one would be there to see and save the day. The danger isn’t confined to the skies either –this year, nine rubbish and recycling trucks have already caught fire in Auckland, probably thanks to lithium batteries (you’re supposed to dispose of these things properly).

That smudgy-screened phone really is an in-flight danger that has earned its place on the safety videos. But it’s an outlier because the reason is not immediately obvious. I know I have to wear a life jacket so I don’t drown and can attract the attention of rescuers with the whistle; I know the oxygen mask is for breathing in the case of all the air getting sucked out; but I did not know that my phone could burst into flames and explode. Perhaps being informed of this in that silky smooth voiceover would ensure more safe rescues of phones from chair crevices.

Keep going!