New incidents defy Samsung’s efforts to end smartphone woes
SAN FRANCISCO >> Samsung Electronics seemed to have its smartphone troubles under control — until authorities had to evacuate a Southwest Airlines flight in Kentucky last week for an incident that involved a replacement phone.
The reason: Authorities said a Samsung smartphone started smoking and making “popping” noises, just moments after its owner had boarded the plane and turned off the device.
Airline passenger Brian Green, 43, says the device was a Galaxy Note 7 that he had picked up from an authorized AT&T retailer on Sept. 21, as a replacement for another Note 7 phone that he returned when Samsung announced a global recall a week earlier. The recall came after a series of incidents last month in which Note 7 batteries overheated or caught fire. But Samsung had promised consumers that the replacement models were safe.
Now the South Korean tech giant is facing more scrutiny, after earlier criticism for being slow to react and sending confusing signals in the first days of the recall.
“They’re in a really tricky spot,” said Ben Bajarin, a tech industry analyst with the Creative Strategies research firm. “There’s such a stigma around this device now, that it’s hard to see how sales can do well going forward.”
Consider Green’s reaction: “I really liked the device. It had a lot of nice features,” he told The Associated Press in an interview Friday. But after the incident on the plane, he bought a new iPhone 7 from Apple, rather than take his chances with yet another Samsung Note. “At this point, I don’t want to mess with it anymore.”
Authorities haven’t confirmed what model of Samsung phone was involved in last week’s incident. A spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission said Friday that her agency is still investigating and had no further information.
On Saturday, Michael Klering, a Kentucky resident, said his Note 7 phone also caught fire even though its battery had been replaced. Klering wrote on Facebook that he and his wife woke up because their bedroom was filling with smoke, and they feared that their children were in danger.
“The phone did not seem to actually produce a lot of flame but was hot enough to melt the case it was in and burn my
nightstand,” he said. “It also created enough smoke to fill my room.”
Klering wrote that he and his wife now have bronchitis and are being treated.
He said he went to a laboratory with Samsung employees where the phone was examined. But he said he doesn’t feel the company is taking the situation seriously enough and wondered whether it plans to act on his report.
Commission officials and Samsung announced a formal recall on Sept. 15 after authorities said they received 92 reports of Note 7 batteries overheating in the U.S., including 26 reports of burns and 55 cases of property damage. Authorities urged consumers to turn off the phones and return them for a full refund or replacement. Samsung said replacement models that were free of defects became available in this country on Sept. 21.
After the Southwest Airlines incident, representatives of the four leading U.S. wireless carriers said Friday that customers who had already received replacement Note 7 phones could return those new devices if they have concerns.
Referring to the safety commission’s investigation, Sprint said in a statement, “At this time, CPSC has not specifically said if customers should or should not use the replacement model. If a Sprint customer with a replacement Note 7 has any concerns regarding their device, we will exchange it for any other device at any Sprint retail store during the investigation window.”
The Galaxy Note 7, which sells for $850 to $890, competes in the high-end smartphone market with Apple, which recently released a new iPhone 7, and other premium brands such as Google’s new Pixel phones.
Samsung says it has recalled about 2.5 million Note 7 devices around the world since problems emerged last month. Analysts estimated the recall would cost the South Korean tech giant as much as $1.8 billion.
Still, the company said Friday that its third-quarter profit still rose 6 percent, to about $7 billion, on total sales of $43.9 billion — thanks to income from Samsung’s other products, which include advanced computer chips and high-end smartphone displays.
The Note 7 isn’t Samsung’s biggest seller. The company sold 76 million smartphones in the second quarter of 2016, most of them lower-priced models. Among higher-priced models, Bajarin estimated Samsung sold well over 10 million Galaxy S7 phones, or four times as many as the Note 7, which has a digital stylus and other distinctive features.
But Bajarin said he’s heard some independent manufacturers may cut production of cases and accessories for the Note 7, in light of slipping sales. He also suggested some wireless carriers may be hesitant to promote the Note 7 heavily in their retail stores.
“If your aggressive sales pitch causes a consumer to suffer property damage, you’ve just damaged your relationship with this customer,” he said.
Samsung has shown no signs of backing away from its product, or halting production, Bajarin
noted. But if more troubling incidents arise, he said the company might have to reconsider.
As for Green, the Indiana businessman told The Associated Press that he had checked to make sure the phone he got on Sept. 21 had the packaging marks and a green battery indicator that Samsung said would show it wasn’t subject to the recall.
“I don’t know what else you’re supposed to do,” he said.
A photo of the phone’s packaging, which Green provided to The Associated Press, shows a black square on the label, which Samsung has said would indicate a non-defective phone. The label also has an identifying number that, when typed into Samsung’s recall website, returns a message that says, “Great News! Your device is NOT in the list of affected devices.”
Green said he had no problems with the replacement until Oct. 5, when the smoke caused him to pull the device from the front pocket of his jeans. After authorities ordered everyone off the plane, Green said he later saw singe marks on his jeans. An airline representative said the phone scorched the carpet where Green left the device on the airplane floor.
After speaking with authorities by phone last week, Green said he had an appointment to meet with them Monday. In a statement last week, Samsung said there was “no evidence that this incident is related to the new Note7.” Samsung and AT&T representatives didn’t respond Friday to a reporter’s questions about how a defective phone might have been provided as a replacement after the recall.
A visitor looks at the smartphone cases of Samsung Electronics’s Galaxy Note 7 at a shop in Seoul, South Korea.