Woman on plane suffers burns in headphone blast

Lithium-ion batteries in listening device likely exploded, causing sparks and melting cover

SYDNEY • A woman whose headphones caught fire on a plane suffered burns to her face and hands, Australian officials said yesterday as they warned about the dangers of battery-operated devices in-flight.

The passenger was listening to music on her own battery-operated headphones as she dozed about two hours into the trip from Beijing to Melbourne on Feb 19 when there was a loud explosion.

"As I tried to turn around I felt burning on my face," she told the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), which investigated the incident. "I just grabbed my face which caused the headphones to go around my neck. I continued to feel burning so I grabbed them off and threw them on the floor.

"They were sparking and had small amounts of fire."

Flight attendants rushed to help and poured a bucket of water on the headphones, but the batteries and the cover had both melted and stuck to the floor.

Pictures show the woman, who was not named, with a blackened face and neck, and blisters on her hands. Fellow passengers had to endure the smell of melted plastic, burnt electronics and singed hair for the remainder of the flight.

The battery-operated headphones exploded while the woman was listening to music and dozing about two hours into her flight from Beijing to Melbourne on Feb 19.
The battery-operated headphones exploded while the woman was listening to music and dozing about two hours into her flight from Beijing to Melbourne on Feb 19. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

"People were coughing and choking the entire way home," the woman said.

The ATSB, which did not identify which airline was involved, assessed that the lithium-ion batteries in the device likely caught fire.

"As the range of products using batteries grows, the potential for in-flight issues increases," it said, adding that such devices needed to be stored safely if they are not being used. Spare batteries should be kept in carry-on luggage and not checked in, the bureau said.

The ATSB general manager Stuart Godley said it was the first report of headphones catching fire in Australia, but there have been a number of other phone and device battery incidents.

Last year, a flight due to leave Sydney had to be evacuated when smoke was seen coming from a passenger's hand luggage. It was later found that lithium batteries had caught fire.

Also last year, an electronic device began belching smoke, then caught fire on a Qantas flight from Los Angeles to New York, with a crew member needing to use a fire extinguisher to put it out, the ATSB reported.

In another Qantas incident last year, attendants were alerted to smoke on a flight from Sydney to Dallas. They found a crushed and burnt out device wedged in the seat.

"We've also had a case of a person using a personal air purifier and the batteries in that have caught on fire on a flight," Mr Godley told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Many airlines last year barred all Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones over fire risk concerns, following reports of exploding lithium-ion batteries.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2017, with the headline 'Woman on plane suffers burns in headphone blast'. Print Edition | Subscribe