Up in Smoke: iPhone Glows Red on Plane, Melts

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Regional Express

Where there’s smoke, there’s…if not exactly fire, how about a glowing red iPhone on an airplane? No really, someone’s iPhone apparently turned the color of molten rock (aka “lava”) and began venting “dense smoke” on an Australian regional airline last week, prompting a flight attendant to break out the cabin’s fire extinguisher.

The airline, Regional Express (Rex), acknowledged the event in a story last Friday. The flight, ZL319, was traveling from Lismore to Sydney, and had just landed when the iPhone began “emitting a significant amount of dense smoke, accompanied by a red glow.” It was so hot, reports Australia’s Herald Sun, that it “had to be dropped to the floor of the cabin,” and it “partially melted and had to be doused by a flight attendant with a fire extinguisher.”

(MORE: Should Lithium Batteries Be Classified ‘Hazardous Material’?)

Rex’s media release refers to the event as “mobile phone self combustion,” but says no one onboard was harmed and that it’s referred the incident to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) as well as the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) for investigation.

Sound like the old “exploding battery” issue? It may be, though no one’s confirmed it officially, and that’s speculation on my part. Overheating or “self combusting” tends to be a problem, albeit a rare one, with lithium-based batteries. The Obama administration wants batteries classified as “hazardous material” by the U.S. government, but a House bill passed in April barred limits that exceeded international standards on shipments of lithium cells and batteries. The bill saves companies like Apple, Panasonic and Samsung piles of money (some estimates put the figure at “billions”) in safety-related costs.

But let’s not make the mistake of reading this as portent of exploding iPhones to come. Apple’s been selling iPhones for how long? That, and the number in circulation’s supposed to top 100 million by the close of this year, each one sporting a lithium-based battery, to say nothing of all the other devices in the world using lithium-based batteries (including the MacBook Air I’m typing this on). Assuming the issue on the Rex flight was battery-related, you’re talking about a clear mathematical anomaly, and while it’ll behoove us to understand what happened and why it happened, there’s little reason to worry that your lithium-based battery is next.

Cargo-based transport, where lithium-based batteries are often stored in transit from manufacturing to retail and have the potential to impact adjacent batteries or other goods are one thing–we have reason to believe a the crash of a UPS Boeing 747 in Dubai last September was caused by a lithium-based battery fire, for instance. That’s serious business, as is the thought of a lithium-based product becoming an incendiary device while it’s in your purse, your pocket, or your house while you’re away. We need to know what about the technology can cause it to behave in completely unpredictable ways. How anomalous is it really, and how much of it is design-related (the product the battery’s in), operator-related (how it’s used or stored), or innate to the technology itself.

MORE: Apple’s iPhone ‘Battery Fix’ No Fix at All?

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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