How an overheating battery charger sparked mass panic

An overheating battery charger led to a major scare at an international airport that a terrorist attack was underway.

The drama at Honolulu airport quickly escalated with travellers fearing a gun had been fired.

Now Hawaii’s largest newspaper The Honolulu Star-Advertiser has revealed just what triggered the panic on Tuesday while Hawaii News Now posed the question: “There’s growing concern about devices catching fire at 30,000ft. Here’s why.”

The Star-Advertiser report that Hawaii Department of Transportation officials said a detailed review of the incident found that the external battery charger overheated and melted a foam neck pillow in a passenger’s carry-on luggage to produce smoke.

Then, some stanchions used to keep passengers in line fell over during an effort by Transportation Security Administration officers to clear the checkpoint. The toppled stanchions made a "pop, pop, pop" sound that caused some passengers to mistakenly think a gun was being fired.

The DOT said in a statement: "Passengers panicked and started running into the sterile area.” This added to the problems as it caused a security breach which required the terminal to be cleared.

The incident led to more than 40 flights being delayed, thousands of passengers inconvenienced and a few suffered minor injuries.

It also prompted some media outlets to ponder what would have happened if the charger had caught fire in an aircraft cabin packed with passengers at 30,000ft.

The rise in lithium battery fires is posing a particular problem in the confined space of passenger aircraft which is why cabin crew now often include in the safety briefing a warning that if passengers lose their mobile phones down seats they should alert the staff and not try to retrieve it themselves. If they do, the phone could get crushed in the seat mechanism, sparking a thermal runaway fire.

During thermal runaway one cell overheating in a battery can produce enough heat – up to 900°C (1652°F) – to cause adjacent cells to overheat. This can cause a lithium battery fire to flare repeatedly. Incidents of thermal runaway are on the rise.

One way to tackle such incidents is to use an AvSax fire containment bag which can deal with fires in personal electronic devices. More than 15,373 are now on aircraft operated by 75 airline companies across the world – including some of the biggest and best-known. 

In January 2017 a passenger on a flight from Fukuoka in Japan to Honolulu dropped his iPhone 7 and when he tried to shift his seat it crushed the phone and battery. His fingers were singed and there was smoke and the smell of burning plastic in the cabin. The crew retrieved the phone and put it in an AvSax fire containment bag to prevent any further danger. The plane was then able to land safely.

AvSax  – which won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2018 - has been used 30 times to deal with emergencies since the start of 2017. Deployment is so effective that extremely expensive diversions to alternate airports are avoided.