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Sony’s faulty-battery woes deepened on Thursday as the Japanese electronics maker said it was starting a worldwide replacement programme for all its laptop batteries that meet certain specifications, regardless of who the machines themselves were made by.

The escalation of the battery fiasco appeared to have been prompted by a malfunction earlier this month in a ThinkPad machine at Los Angeles International airport. Made by Lenovo under both its own and the IBM brand, rugged black-cased ThinkPads have long been the laptop of choice for traveling executives.

The battery failure happened as the machine was being carried aboard an aircraft, “causing enough smoke and sparking that a fire extinguisher was used to put it out,” according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. The commission did not name the airport, but Lenovo, the world’s third-largest PC maker, had already said it was investigating a fire at the LA airport on September 16.

The incident, coming a month after Dell’s widely-publicised recall of Sony batteries, suggested that the problems extend further than initially thought. Sony refused to say how many laptop makers use the potentially faulted batteries, or how many of the devices have been sold.

Along with Lenovo and IBM, the safety commission on Thursday announced the recall of batteries from 526,000 ThinkPad machines sold since February 2005. That makes it the third Sony battery recall, following Dell’s move to replace 4m batteries and Apple’s recall of 1.8m. Toshiba last week said it was recalling 340,000 laptop batteries because of a flaw that made them vulnerable to failure, though it denied they could catch fire.

Sony said that its global replacement programme would not be an obligatory one, but that it would depend on the outcome of “consultations” with individual computer makers.

“Sony will work with those that choose to participate,” a spokesman said. The Japanese company would not comment on how much of the cost it would bear from the recall, but in earlier recalls it has shared some of the costs with manufacturers.

While it conceded that the battery failures reflect a manufacturing flaw in the battery cells it supplies to laptop makers, Sony also continued to maintain on Thursday that the problem was at least partly caused by the laptops themselves. The risk of fire “can be affected by variations in the system configurations found in different notebook computers,” it said.

Earlier this month, one person familiar with Sony’s own internal investigation of the problem said that, despite extensive testing, the company’s engineers had not been able to produce any battery failures themselves, suggesting that the cause may lie partly in the systems designs used rather than solely in the battery.

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