Galaxy Note7 Fires Making Shippers Paranoid About All Batteries

NEWS ANALYSIS: Samsung Galaxy Note7 is banned from aircraft flying in the U.S. after incidents of burning devices, also complicating product shipping channels.

Battery Fire Fears

There's no question that airlines in the United States are taking the problems with the exploding Samsung Galaxy Note7 seriously. This was clear when I flew to San Francisco recently and the crew on the United Airlines flight warned against the phone by name.

Now the Federal Aviation Administration has banned the Note7 from all aircraft operating in the United States. This means the device cannot be carried or shipped on any airplane, whether onboard as cargo, in checked luggage or simply in someone's pocket.

As you might imagine, this is creating problems for people who simply want to get rid of their phone and replace it with something else, since it will need to be shipped using a carrier who will handle it. Not surprisingly, many shipping companies won't accept the phone at all, regardless of whether it's going by air or ground.

This is complicating things for Samsung, which has developed a special three-layer shipping container specifically for returning the Note7. This shipping container is intended specifically to contain a Note7 explosion.

Fortunately for customers who bought their Note7 devices in stores or from a wireless carrier that has stores, all they have to do is take their device to one of those and trade it for something else. For customers who bought their phone online, those explosion proof containers can be shipped by U.S. Mail, but not by any form of mail that goes by air.

The problem, unfortunately, has grown to the point that some shippers have developed a new level of paranoia about all batteries that is both irrational and unfounded. This happened to me last week when I was sent a supply of a critical medication by UPS for overnight delivery. When I checked the delivery status on the UPS website, I found that my medication had been held at the shipping site because it was "hazardous material."

A phone conversation made it clear that there was nothing I could do at that point because of the hazardous nature of the contents. So I abandoned my original plans for the day and drove for hours to the shipping location to retrieve my package.

When the package eventually appeared I examined it for indications of hazardous markings, which is what I was told was the problem. There were none. But when I questioned the UPS staff, I was told that the package was held because it looked like a package that might have a Lithium-ion battery inside—but there was no evidence, just a vague belief.

And therein lies a problem. As the concern about the dangers of lithium-ion batteries grows, so do irrational acts by people and companies that don't understand the nature of the problem. The legitimate concern over the Note7 now appears to be growing into a fear of all batteries. The UPS agent who actually found my package explained that clearly when she said, "I don't know why they held it, but we can't have no batteries. No sir."

As disruptive as this fear of the unknown was for me, imagine what it can do to your business. Lithium-ion batteries are the backbone of the mobile communications business, but they're also critical to everything from medical devices to research equipment. Your employees would be unable to work while they're traveling if their cellphones, tablets and laptop computers were effectively banned from airlines, or even from being shipped in a timely manner.

But what's more important is that you may be unable to meet your customers' needs if you can't ship items to them in packages that happen to be of a size or shape that somehow suggest they contain batteries.

While I understand there are standard labels that 'are supposed to be affixed to packages that contain hazardous material, I fear this no longer may be enough. Now that the standard appears to be changed to anything that the shipping people think might have a battery, you will need to be more explicit with your packaging.

My suggestion is that you create a label that says something on the order of, "This package does not contain batteries of any type." Then put that label on at least four sides of any package.

For its part, UPS provides very clear, detailed information regarding the shipping of batteries of all types. In addition, a UPS spokesperson said that UPS follows existing regulations. "UPS ships lithium batteries in compliance with international and U.S. domestic regulations," the spokesperson said. "As a company that places the highest emphasis on safety, we have an extensive lithium battery program in place that includes industry-first fire-resistant containers, cockpit safety measures [along with] training and audits for customers and employees."

The spokesperson also said that UPS currently prohibits shipping of Galaxy Note7 phones by air and will only ship those devices by ground if they're in the proper packaging, which in this case is that three-layer special packaging that Samsung provides for returning the phones.

The problem in this case isn't with UPS requirements, but rather with the interpretation of the requirements by one or more employees in the Washington, D.C., area. However, if that kind of error happens in your area, whether it's with UPS or some other shipping company, the results can be significant for your company. Even worse, you may not really know why it happened, and it might take days to retrieve your shipment from the shipping company.

It's impossible to say at this point whether labeling your packages as not containing batteries (unless they do, of course) will work. The UPS spokesperson said that such supplemental labeling shouldn't be required. But it might work, and if it does, that could save you some real headaches.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...