Alaska Air flight grounded after e-cig batteries ingnite

Passengers on an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Anchorage on Sunday were delayed over five hours after a passenger’s backpack started burning. Batteries for an e-cigarette are the likely culprit.

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(Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines and Virgin Airlines)
(Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines and Virgin Airlines)

Flight 67 had just made a scheduled stop in Ketchikan at 3:30 Sunday afternoon, and about half the passengers had deplaned when the incident occurred.

Andrew Hames was seated just a few rows behind the passenger.

“And I heard sort of a whooshing sound, like a quick hiss of air, and I looked up and about 3 rows in front of me a guy’s backpack started smoking and burst into orange and blue flame” Hames said. “He quickly got it off and hit it to the ground and some other passengers got up and started stomping on it.”

Hames said the man thought the source of the fire might have been an e-cigarette, but that wasn’t the complete answer. After all passengers had stepped off into the Ketchikan airport, Hames spoke briefly with the man as he emptied out his pack.

“And he said it was this device,” Hames said. “And he held up the charger itself. And it looked like there were some coins in the bottom and somehow made contact with that. And he also had several charred quarters sitting on the table as well.”

Hames also said the man appeared quite chagrined, and cooperated fully with authorities in the airport.

In a prepared statement, Alaska Airlines confirms that freshly-charged batteries were to blame. Spokesperson Ann Zaninovich also doesn’t call this event a fire.

“Technical experts believe that when the batteries came in contact with metal keys and coins it caused a spark,” Zaninovich said. “There was visible smoke, and a set of keys and candy fell to the ground through a burnt hole in the backpack. While there was not fire, there was sparking, which prompted the flight attendants to take swift action and use the fire extinguisher.”

Zaninovich said that “out of an abundance of caution” the aircraft’s first officer put “a device” in a fire containment bag, which is carried on all of the airline’s planes. She offered no comment on whether the incident would affect rules regarding the transport of e-cigarettes or battery chargers on aircraft.

Andrew Hames, however, considers the event an eye-opener.

“I imagine if those items had been underneath the airplane in the luggage compartment and somehow that same event had happened, it absolutely could have been more exciting than it already was,” Hames said.

Another aircraft was sent to take passengers on to Juneau and Anchorage. Hames and his family arrived in Sitka about five hours behind schedule. The original aircraft used for Flight 67 was returned to service about six hours later. A 12-square of burned carpet had been replaced.

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Robert Woolsey is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.