Mar. 31, 2003. 01:00 AM
Swissair crash a high-tech reality check
A tiny spark becomes a flame. Fire races along the ceiling. Key systems fail and the cockpit ceiling caves in.
Some 229 people lost their lives in the crash of Swissair Flight 111 in 1998. All because of failed wiring and flammable insulation.
According to Canada's Transportation Safety Board, there was little the pilot could do to avoid disaster. There were no fire detectors in the aircraft's ceiling to warn the crew. By the time they were alerted to the blaze, it was too late to do anything about it.
Every component used on an airplane is supposed to meet strict requirements before it is brought on board. Clearly, that doesn't always happen.
If the plane's insulation was burning like newspaper, as the safety board suggests, then I have lost faith in those standards as a whole.
But upgrading the manufacturing standards for airplane parts can only accomplish so much. It might ensure a part worked well when it was installed, but what about a year down the road?
Technology is not infallible. Moving parts wear away and even top-quality electronics break down. Yet the population at large tends to believe that in our digital age, devices should never fail.
I blame this mislaid trust on the television ï¿½ not the programs, but the sets. We rarely see televisions break down, so why not expect the same level of service from all electronics?
In fact, the older the television, the longer it seems to last. That's partly because old television sets don't have all the extra bells and whistles. They don't have special circuitry for picture in-picture systems, for example.
People usually get rid of their old television because they want a better-quality set, not because their old one broke down.
But it is unreasonable to think we can make an airplane that is as reliable as an old TV. Airplanes just aren't so simple and they have to work in a much more demanding environment.
Even an airplane made out of the best components can't fly forever without trouble with electronics.
One answer could be to do more ongoing testing of electrical components onboard airliners. That way, we could catch, for instance, overheating components before they start a fire.
All that testing would take a lot of time and money, though. On top of the cost of manpower and equipment, airplanes would have to spend much more time on the ground.
Airlines would have to buy more planes to maintain levels of service. The airfare would be prohibitive to all but the uber-rich.
So how do we ensure proper testing while still keeping costs down?
Get rid of all the unessential gadgets on planes.
The most likely cause of the fire onboard Swissair Flight 111 was wiring associated with a video game system installed in the first-class cabin.
That's one of the heartbreaking tragedies of the crash: it was caused by a superfluous piece of equipment. Video games are not essential to flight.
It's time we stopped installing them in airplanes. Not just the particular brand of system that caused the Swissair tragedy ï¿½ all of them.
Those in-flight phones are another frivolous addition.
And the video screens that placate passengers with television reruns, and movies ï¿½ those should go too. They are all adding to the complexity of the aircraft and, by extension, it's instability.
By getting rid of all but the essential elements of an airplane, we would reduce the potential for accidents by simplifying the whole system. And we could spend testing dollars on the vital systems.
And I'd be happy to read a good book, or do crossword puzzle, if it upped my chances of arriving safely.
We sent Tara equipped with books and magazines to get through the long 8 hr. flight to Switzerland. Nobody at swissair bothered to ask us if we wanted to take a chance with her life with a sleezy entertainment system.
Having lost 229 people, and an unborn baby, because somebody thought they could profit steadily out of in-flight gambling, plus individually controlled movies, is an appalling idea to live with. The sight of a pop-up television in an aircraft makes me shudder. It will always make me shudder. But it will never happen - this removal of unnecessary 'extras' - from aircraft. What must happen, however, is stringent procedures for the installation and maintenance of these sytstems.
Ivy you are right, this is an appalling thing to live with. Just because swissair ripped the IFENs out of their MD-11s certainly is no guarantee that the people who participated in this (and others) IMO scandal couldn't do it again. The system is still wide open to this sort of thing happening.
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