A View to the Development of the FAA’s Ban on the Use of Galaxy 7 Phones on Airplanes.

Joshua Wold, MJLST Staffer

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 has problems. Under normal charging and use conditions, the battery in some devices can start on fire. As of September 1, Samsung reported that 35 of these problems had come to its attention, and more have been reported since that time. Samsung has already begun a recall—officially a “replacement program”—offering to replace the potentially dangerous devices with new ones. At the same time, US government agencies are also moving to prevent the harm that a malfunction from these devices could cause.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not banned the device from airplanes. According to Matt Novak at Gizmodo, the FAA stated on September 6th that it was “working on guidance related to this issue,” and said, “If the device is recalled by the manufacturer, airline crew and passengers will not be able to bring recalled batteries or electronics that contain recalled batteries in the cabin of an aircraft, or in carry-on and checked baggage.” On September 8th, the FAA issued a statement “strongly” advising airline passengers to keep the devices off, not charge them while aboard, and to keep them out of checked baggage.

Then, on September 9th the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) put out a press release urging Galaxy Note 7 owners to power off the device, and not to charge or use it. The press release indicated that it was cooperating with Samsung “to formally announce an official recall of the devices, as soon as possible.”

Based on the comments made to Gizmodo, the FAA appeared unwilling to ban the device until the official recall was put into effect. This is understandable. Cell phones are a significant part of modern life. Nearly every person getting onto a plane is carrying at least one. TSA would thus be forced to distinguish between types of cell phones. Its task would be complicated by cases and other types of personalization which obscure the appearance of a cell phone.

Even more challenging, however, is the fact that some versions of the Note 7 have a battery which is not prone to overheating, and poses no threat. Unless these safe phones were to also be banned, security personnel would need to determine which battery was in a phone in order to know if it were permissible. People want to have their phones when they get wherever they are flying to, and banning a safe phone because it looks like an unsafe phone seems like a sure recipe for passenger dissatisfaction.

It may seem that a ban is be appropriate despite the difficulties. Certainly, the potential for harm is significant. A widely circulated photo of a Jeep engulfed in flames is evocative of the threat, and airline passengers have gotten used to restrictions on items which seem to pose even less risk than an exploding phone. FAA’s suggestion that those with Note 7 phones simply turn them off and not charge them may have had the potential to eliminate the threat. On the one hand, it was only a strong recommendation, and not a rule. On the other hand, with airlines repeating the FAA’s warning, it seems unlikely that many people would have failed to take it seriously.

On the 15th of September, the situation changed further, as the CPSC announced an official recall. With that decision, the ground mentioned to Gizmodo for not instituting a ban disappeared. Considering  some data (which can be found here), suggesting that people aren’t really taking Samsung’s warnings seriously, it seemed very likely that the FAA would decide to strengthen their recommendation against use to a prohibition on use, or even a prohibition on flying with the phones at all.

On the next day, September 16th, the FAA banned use of the phone on airplanes, but not the phones themselves. This new policy fits with the reality of modern cellphone use, that people rely on their phones, even if they are fire hazards. While this move takes the pressure off the TSA (which is probably a good move in terms of the overall happiness of air travelers), the regulation (which can be found here) doesn’t specifically mention the Galaxy Note 7, but refers instead to “defective or recalled” lithium batteries.

Of course, this creates the same sort of enforcement problems as appeared with earlier recommendations: can airline staff identify a Galaxy Note 7 with such “defective or recalled” lithium batteries? The FAA itself notes that it is difficult to distinguish between phones which have had the battery replaced and those which are still risked. The FAA’s recommendation on how to manage this problem is pretty general, and it essentially boils down to training of airline staff, and provision of information to airline passengers. One hopes that this is sufficient.

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