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A passenger’s battery charger exploded on a United flight, forcing an emergency landing

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

A United Airbus 320 flight headed to the Bahamas from Newark Liberty International Airport was forced to make an emergency landing at Daytona Beach International Airport, in Florida, after a passenger’s backup power source for a device caught fire, according to Daytona Beach airport officials.

“Fire was contained to the passenger’s bag, put in fire retardant case until the plane landed safely,” the airport said on Twitter. “No injuries or damages.”

United said the flight to Nassau was diverted to Florida because of an issue with the passenger’s portable charger for a laptop. “Emergency personnel met the aircraft and customers remained onboard prior to the aircraft redeparting for Nassau,” United spokeswoman Leigh Schramm told The Washington Post. “We appreciate the quick work of our employees on board to keep our customers and fellow employees safe.”

A passenger who was on board the flight commended the United crew’s quick response to containing the fire. “Very impressed with the way this entire flight crew handled the inflight emergency,” he tweeted.

The Federal Aviation Administration lists rechargeable and “non-rechargeable lithium batteries, cell phone batteries, laptop batteries” as dangerous goods and has placed them on the “prohibited items” list, which means they can’t be present at all in a checked bag and can only be taken onboard as long as the device they’re in is completely powered down. These new regulations were adopted after 268 incidents involving lithium-ion batteries that have been reported to the FAA in the past 15 years.

This isn’t the first time battery-powered devices or chargers have caused trouble on airplanes. In 2016, the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was barred completely from flying by the Department of Transportation after images of people’s phones catching fire, and in some cases exploding, went viral. Samsung eventually issued a full recall of the phone, but not before a smoking Galaxy Note 7 forced an evacuation of a Southwest Airlines flight.

In 2018, three U.S. airlines placed restrictions on “smart bags” — such as those sold by the popular luggage brand Away — over FAA concerns that the lithium-ion batteries that powered features like phone chargers and internal tracking devices could potentially catch fire and explode. Away complied with the regulations by making their batteries removable; still, the FAA has reported 191 cases of lithium-ion batteries catching fire, smoking or exploding on planes or in airports since 1991. Similar incidents have led to restrictions on lithium batteries on cargo planes.

Last year, a Virgin Atlantic flight from New York headed to London had to be rerouted for an emergency landing in Boston after the flight crew noticed a cabin fire that investigators believed to have been caused by a phone charger.

In the past three years, e-cigarettes have been responsible for more than 30 smoke or fire incidents at airports or on planes. They include an incident on a SkyWest flight from Los Angeles in 2017, where a flight attendant improvised by using an ice bucket to stop a smoldering e-cigarette before placing it in a fire-containment bag.

Hayley Tsukayama, Lori Aratani, Hamza Shaban, Michael Laris contributed to this report.

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