A Samsung Galaxy Note 7, the kind of cellphone that has been recalled for overheating batteries, began popping and smoking Wednesday morning aboard a Southwest Airlines, sparking the evacuation of the flight while still on the ground at Louisville.
The incident brings more damage to Samsung’s reputation and calls into question the very future of the Note 7 itself, a phone that was highly regarded when it first hit the market in late August, before reports began to surface about batteries that caught fire.
Making matters worse, the device was apparently one of the replacement handsets that the South Korean company had previously deemed “safe.” Now it appears that the issue is far from settled.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency overseeing the U.S. recall of the Note 7, late Wednesday said it is investigating the Southwest flight incident, according to a report on news site Recode.
The timing is awful for Samsung. It came a day after Google unveiled its own brand new Pixel handsets, which based on early buzz could intrude upon, if not outright threaten, Samsung’s dominant position among premium Android smartphones. And on its other flank, Samsung must still contend with Apple, which recently launched the iPhone 7.
The Southwest incident happened about 9:15 a.m. as Flight 994 to Baltimore was boarding. Arson investigators confirmed that a Samsung phone overheated, leading to smoke in the cabin, according to WHAS-TV reporter Rachel Platt.
Nobody was injured, but the incident caused enough smoke to force evacuation of the plane and the flight was canceled.
Sarah Green of New Albany told The Courier-Journal of Louisville that her husband, Brian, was waiting to take off to Baltimore when his Galaxy Note 7 overheated. He called her from another person's phone a little after 9 a.m. to tell her what happened.
"He said he had just powered it down, when it made a popping noise and started smoking," Sarah Green said. "He took it out of his pocket and threw it on the ground."
Green said her husband's phone was a replacement Galaxy Note 7 after Samsung recalled the phone in mid-September because of "serious fire and burn hazards." They took the phone in about two weeks to a local AT&T Store to have it replaced.
Samsung expressed skepticism the incident involved a new Note 7.
“Until we are able to retrieve the device, we cannot confirm that this incident involves the new Note 7," the company said in a statement. "We are working with the authorities and Southwest now to recover the device and confirm the cause. Once we have examined the device we will have more information to share."
An airport spokeswoman, Natalie Ciresi-Chaudoin, said 75 people aboard the Boeing 737 evacuated without incident
Southwest Airlines said in a statement that a customer reported smoke emitting from an electronic device, but that passengers were able to evacuate calmly through the main cabin door because the plane hadn't left the gate.
"Safety is always our top priority," the airline said in urging passengers to follow Federal Aviation Administration rules, which warn against having the phones turned on while aboard planes.
Samsung officially recalled 1 million of its Galaxy Note 7 phones sold before Sept. 15 because of "serious fire and burn hazards."
By mid-September, Samsung had received 92 reports of batteries in the popular smartphone overheating in the U.S., resulting in 26 instances of burns and 55 of property damage, including fires in cars and a garage, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The FAA warned travelers a month ago to avoid turning on or charging the phones while flying because of concerns about the devices catching fire. Airline crews read reminders about the warning at airport gates and in routine safety messages.
“In light of recent incidents and concerns raised by Samsung about its Galaxy Note 7 devices, the Federal Aviation Administration strongly advises passengers not to turn on or charge these devices on board aircraft and not to stow them in any checked baggage,” the FAA said Sept. 8.
Rechargeable lithium batteries are widely used in electronic devices because they are lighter and are smaller than other comparable batteries. But the batteries are also susceptible to overheating when damaged or suffering from manufacturing problems.