Why Airlines Tell You Not to Retrieve Your Phone if It Falls Between Seats

It’s frustrating when your phone falls into the cracks between airplane seats. But it could be dangerous if you try to fish it out yourself.

person in blurry background holding smartphone with smashed screen. The phone and hand are in focus.

A smashed screen is not the worst thing that can happen if a phone falls between airplane seats.

Photo by Unsplash/Getty Images

You may have noticed in recent years that during the announcements before takeoff, flight attendants have started telling passengers that if their phone falls between the seats, they should alert a crew member. Many passengers might try to retrieve their phone by reaching blindly into the tight space between seats. But there are a couple of important reasons you should resist the urge to do so and instead notify a flight attendant immediately.

Safety is paramount on any flight, and while it might seem like a minor inconvenience to lose your phone between the seats, attempting to retrieve it without assistance can pose risks to both yourself and the aircraft.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, when smartphones fall between the seats and get caught in the mechanisms, they can be crushed if the seat is reclined or otherwise adjusted. That’s problematic because the lithium batteries that power the phones can overheat and burst into flames if they are damaged. (It’s the same reason you can’t put computers, e-cigarettes, or other electronic devices in your checked bag.)

That’s exactly what happened halfway through one Qantas flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles in 2018. The crew extinguished the fire so the flight could finish without additional problems, but if it hadn’t, the plane would have needed to be diverted.

FAA data shows at least 68 verified incidents between March 3, 2006, and February 15, 2024 in which lithium batteries in cell phones emitted smoke, caught on fire, or became extremely hot while on a plane. Those numbers have risen in recent years as more and more people get smartphones. Of those 68 incidents, 14 happened in 2023 alone.

According to a representative from American Airlines, the reason it’s important to notify a crew member is because they know the seats and can access the device before it becomes a safety issue.

“Seats can vary between aircraft, and as part of this training, flight attendants are informed of the various operational intricacies of each seat that customers may not be aware of, and can safely help our customers out should their phone fall between seats,” the American Airlines representative told AFAR.

A representative from Delta echoed that sentiment, saying, “There are different seat modifications between cabins and planes, so flight attendants are going to be able to retrieve the phone more easily.” They added that if the phone is really stuck in there, flight attendants can call the destination airport, where someone will be dispatched to meet the plane and use tools, if necessary, to retrieve it. And if the phone gets too hot, starts to smoke, or becomes inflamed, it’s good for the in-flight team to know early so it can prepare fire-safety protocols.

The Delta representative added that calling a flight attendant limits the chances of a passenger accidentally hurting themselves, saying, “Those seats are tight. We’d rather get your phone out for you rather than have you potentially jam your finger.”

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at AFAR. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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