In-flight entertainment systems linked to scores of jet 'difficulties' Safety concerns grow: U.S. carriers have reported 60 incidents since 1998 wiring-related Swissair crash
By Gary Stoller
As a Boeing 757 airliner climbed to 14,000 feet in March, a routine takeoff suddenly became an emergency. Sparks and smoke came out of the passenger cabin's in-flight entertainment system, cockpit instrument lights lit up, and the rudder and control wheel moved.
The pilots, who reported the incident to a government safety database, said they returned for an ''uneventful'' landing. The database doesn't identify the airline involved or the U.S. airport the flight diverted to, but the timing of the event was significant.
It was the same month the Canadian government concluded that entertainment system wiring may have caused or contributed to a fire that sent a Swissair jet into the ocean near Nova Scotia in 1998, killing all 229 aboard. The Canadian Transportation Safety Board said an entertainment system wire or another wire short-circuited, creating a fiery electric arc that ignited acoustic insulation blankets.
Despite intense scrutiny after the Swissair accident, in-flight entertainment systems continue to malfunction, and U.S. airlines are still being ordered to modify some systems.
A USA TODAY analysis found that since the Swissair accident, U.S. airlines have sent the Federal Aviation Administration 60 ''service difficulty reports'' about in-flight entertainment systems, many involving fire, smoke or sparks. Airlines are required by the FAA to report within 72 hours each ''failure, malfunction or defect'' that endangers an aircraft's safe operation.
Pilots and flight attendants have voluntarily reported to another government database 20 incidents of entertainment system problems. It's unknown how many of those incidents are also included in the service difficulty reports.
The FAA has also sent 22 orders to ban, modify or repair certain entertainment systems. Most of those orders resulted from an investigation done by the agency after the Swissair crash.
''The time is long past that we can consider these systems as risk-free,'' says Jim Shaw, a pilot and a safety expert for the Air Line Pilots Association union. ''I know many instances where problems with in-flight entertainment systems created smoke and fire events,'' he says, speaking for himself. The union wouldn't comment.
Many jets have traditional in-flight entertainment systems with overhead movie screens shared by rows of passengers. Others, particularly new, wide-body planes flying international routes, contain more sophisticated equipment with individual screens that allow passengers to choose a movie, play games, shop or gamble. Upstart airline JetBlue offers live satellite TV on monitors at every seat.
Some major airlines offer video or audio entertainment on most of their planes, while some, such as Southwest, have no jets with such equipment.
Consultant Wale Adepoju estimates that 5,100 of 11,650 planes worldwide with 100 or more seats have some form of entertainment system, and about 2,000 of those aircraft have at least some seats equipped with individual video screens. Of about 3,700 wide-body aircraft in the global airline fleet, nearly 80% have some form of entertainment system, Adepoju says.
Manufacturers insist that the most sophisticated entertainment systems, as well as older ones, are safe and meet FAA standards. They blame the type installed on Swissair, which was banned a year after the crash, for giving everyone in the industry a bad name.
That system, built by a Phoenix company now out of the airline business, was put on to replace an existing system and pioneered interactive entertainment at each seat. But, as a USA TODAY investigation found in February, it was improperly designed, installed and certified by contractors without adequate FAA oversight. The General Accounting Office and the Transportation Department's inspector general recently began investigating the matter.
Other systems, though, have had problems since the Swissair accident. Safety experts say the number of service difficulty reports about entertainment system problems endangering passenger safety during the past two years could far exceed the 60 received by the FAA.
''The 60 reports are probably just the tip of the iceberg,'' says Alex Richman, whose company, AlgoPlus Consulting, analyzes FAA data for some aircraft operators. ''More incidents probably go unreported than are reported.''
The FAA's 22 orders to ban, modify or repair entertainment systems involve those that airlines installed to replace previous ones. The orders apply to the equipment on eight types of Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and Airbus jets.
More pounds, more wires
An entertainment system adds thousands of pounds to a jet. It consists of more than 2,000 parts and, on a fully equipped wide-body jet, uses about 4 1/2 miles of wire, says Greg Steiner, a vice president at entertainment system manufacturer Rockwell Collins.
Ed Block, a former Defense Department employee involved in wiring purchases, inspected wiring on various jets for an FAA task force and for Swissair victims' families. It's his opinion that all in-flight entertainment systems should be banned because they have electrical wiring and components that can malfunction and start a fire during flight.
The aviation industry has been grappling for years with problems of cracked and deteriorated wiring causing fires and emergency landings, he says. Adding four miles of entertainment system wire to a jet that may have more than 100 miles of other wires is ''like throwing gas on a fire.''
Ken Adams, who was the Air Line Pilots Association's lead investigator in the Swissair crash, doesn't think the systems must be scrapped. But he says they need to be better designed and suggests studying the use of fiber-optics instead of electrical wiring. ''Any time you're adding more and more electrical systems, you're compounding the problem,'' he says.
In a statement to USA TODAY, the FAA says entertainment systems are safe and that it ''takes a very rigorous approach to approving non-essential systems.'' The agency says it has done in-depth reviews of entertainment systems on airplanes, has taken action to make sure no system in use has the same design features as the one on the Swissair jet, and has issued directives designed to prevent any unsafe conditions from developing.
Manufacturers say their systems must meet FAA and aircraft manufacturers' standards and tests. ''Safety is the absolute first priority,'' says Rob Brookler of the World Airline Entertainment Association, which represents manufacturers, suppliers and airlines. ''We'd support any procedures that would further enhance the safety of the systems.''
The Air Transport Association, a trade group representing U.S. airlines, refused to comment about in-flight entertainment systems. Northwest Airlines, which flies many long-distance flights with such systems aboard, says it buys ''the appropriate, proven system recommended by the aircraft manufacturer.'' JetBlue says the airline's in-seat live television systems were certified by the FAA. The airline says it has had ''no issues'' with them.
United Airlines says its in-flight entertainment systems are safe because they are continuously monitored by its maintenance department ''for any irregularities or reliability issues that require attention.'' United says its systems have not been cited in FAA orders and are not similar to those that were on the Swissair plane that crashed.
Reports of problems
Most of the 60 reports filed by airlines with the FAA, which were provided to USA TODAY by AlgoPlus Consulting, mention fire, smoke, sparks, an electrical short-circuit or burning odor in the passenger cabin. NASA collects such incident data for the FAA. Among the confidential reports given to the space agency by airline flight crews, which NASA says are not verified for accuracy:
* A flight attendant on a Boeing 767 flight last August reported that she became nauseated, her eyes and throat burned and a passenger vomited after breathing fumes from a malfunctioning video system.
* On an Airbus A-300 plane in December 2000, a flight attendant reported passengers standing in the aisle during landing as ''smoke, sparks and a flame'' came from an entertainment system box under a passenger seat.
* A pilot reported smoke ''pouring out'' of an entertainment unit on a 767 international flight in April 2000.
* In February 1999, a flight attendant on a McDonnell Douglas MD-11 flying over Alaska said it was hard to breathe because of a burning wire odor coming from a video system.
The FAA says such reports from crew members are voluntary and can't be used to decide how prevalent a problem is.
The 22 orders from the FAA after the Swissair crash came when the agency reviewed systems that, like the one on the Swissair McDonnell Douglas MD-11 jet, were put in as replacements between 1992 and 2000. The orders involved systems on at least 182 planes, including removal of the entire system on six Douglas DC-9s. It also ordered removal of an unspecified number of systems on DC-10s and 767s. And corrections were ordered for some systems on other 767s, 757s, 747s, 737s, MD-11s, DC-10s and Airbus A-340s.
Ten of the 22 orders, including one issued in December for an unspecified number of 767-300s, instructed airlines to install switches that allow the systems to shed an electrical load or to be turned off without affecting other aircraft systems. Also in December, the FAA proposed that some system components on some 737s and 757s be inspected and the wiring possibly replaced.
Last month, an order took effect requiring that airlines operating 37 767-300s install new electrical components in the systems within 18 months.
In its statement, the FAA said its orders to airlines about entertainment systems are not a sign that planes equipped with them operated unsafely, but are meant to prevent unsafe conditions from developing.
Many of the agency's orders, however, state that an unsafe condition exists. For example, in its order for the 37 767-300s, the agency said: ''The FAA has determined that an unsafe condition exists.'' The entertainment systems are connected to an electrical source ''that cannot be deactivated without also removing power from airplane systems necessary for safe flight and landing.''
Scott Toner, principal certification engineer for Matsushita Avionics Systems, the largest in-flight entertainment system manufacturer, says that could be interpreted to mean that flights flew with unsafe systems. ''An airworthiness directive may identify a problem that wasn't recognized when we designed the system. When the problem's found, we take care of it,'' he says.
The in-flight entertainment industry generated more than $2 billion in revenue in 2000, according to a study by consultant Frost & Sullivan, but has been devastated, along with the rest of the airline business, by a sharp business decline after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
For financially ailing airlines, upgrading entertainment systems is not a top priority, industry executives say. Northwest, for instance, says its newer jets include entertainment systems with ''new, proven technology'' recommended by aircraft manufacturers and tested for safety. The airline says it usually doesn't upgrade the systems already on older jets.
That the systems raise safety concerns is contrary to their purpose, says an entertainment industry expert: distracting passengers who don't feel safe. ''Airlines still feel the need for in-flight entertainment to keep people occupied and calm,'' says consultant Rich Salter, who designed a map passengers use onboard to monitor their flight. ''There are a significant number of nervous fliers, and an entertainment system can keep their minds off the flight.''
Historically, airlines have said they equip planes with the systems because passengers want them. ''Most airlines say their return is in customer satisfaction,'' says Brookler. ''I haven't heard anyone say the system pays for itself.'' But as the systems become more interactive, airlines can generate more revenue from advertising, as well as from passengers who choose to shop, surf the Internet or watch a pay-per-view movie.
American Airlines equips its jets with the systems because ''customers expect some in-flight entertainment, especially on long flights,'' says spokesman Tim Kincaid. He says the systems also help American stay competitive.
But Candace Kolander of the Association of Flight Attendants union says the airline industry has become too obsessed with pleasing passengers. ''We may be pushing the entertainment systems too far and not stepping back to consider safety,'' she says.
Certifying the systems
Nick Lacey, an aviation consultant and a former top FAA official, is particularly concerned about the FAA's policy of allowing private companies or individuals to certify design and installation of entertainment system retrofits on aircraft. The FAA allows manufacturers to use their own employees or hire contractors to certify their products.
''I believe the FAA process of determining the skills needed for certifying a modification project has never worked,'' says Lacey. ''As the program exists now, it seems to me that a designee can inadvertently wander beyond his area of competence, or make a mistake, and it might not be picked up. That is unacceptable.''
In its statement, the FAA said that its ''delegation programs have served the aviation industry and public well since 1927.'' The agency said it has set more specific policies for designee qualification and oversight.
Some entertainment company officials say they are increasingly relying on aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus for guidance in their systems' design, installation, type of wiring used and interface with existing electrical systems on the planes. Airlines demand such input, they say.
In a written statement, Boeing says it ''establishes the environmental, electromagnetic, flammability and airplane interface requirements'' that the system manufacturers must meet. The requirements, Boeing says, are similar to those required for critical flight systems.
Airbus spokeswoman Mary Anne Greczyn says the company has rigorous standards for entertainment and other aircraft systems. Airbus provides extra protection on entertainment system wiring by using sleeves and other materials, she says.
Lacey believes planes are safer without the systems. ''We could choose to do without fancy entertainment systems,'' he says. ''A good book works for me.''
Link to the full story at USATODAY
AP picks up Gary Stoller's story shown in the post below this one:
In-Flight Entertainment May Pose Hazard
Wed Jul 9,11:26 AM ET
WASHINGTON - In-flight airline entertainment systems are still malfunctioning after one version caused a fire that downed a Swissair jet and killed all 229 aboard, according to an analysis of a government database.
Since the 1998 Swissair crash off the coast of Nova Scotia, U.S. airlines sent the Federal Aviation Administration (news - web sites) 60 so-called service difficulty reports about in-flight entertainment systems, USA Today reported on Wednesday. Many involved fire, smoke, sparks or a burning odor in the passenger cabin.
The FAA requires airlines to report within three days each "failure, malfunction or defect" that could endanger an aircraft.
"More incidents probably go unreported than are reported," said Alex Richman, spokesman for AlgoPlus Consulting, which analyzes data for aircraft operators.
After investigating the Swissair crash, the FAA sent 22 orders to modify, repair or ban entertainment systems installed as replacements between 1992 and 2000.
The FAA has vouched for the safety of entertainment systems. It said its orders to fix or ban them were meant to prevent unsafe conditions and do not indicate that planes which have them are unsafe.
The agency said it has made sure that no system has the same design features as the one on the Swissair aircraft.
Manufacturers say safety is the first priority for their systems. "We'd support any procedures that would further enhance the safety of the systems," said Rob Brookler of the World Airline Entertainment Association, which represents manufacturers, suppliers and airlines.
About 45 percent of large planes throughout the world have entertainment systems, including overhead movie screens and individual screens with movies, games, shopping or gambling.
Given what we know, we can't help but support measures that will bring more care, caution and quality assurance to the in-flight entertainment systems business (and to other aviation-related industries as well). Gary Stoller's newest article is excellent and serves the public in the grandest tradition of journalism - it informs us. Even if there are no protests on the white house lawn, the simple fact that we know about the problems, and the industry knows we know, fosters greater caution.
But was Interactive Flight Technologies just the first of many in the IFE business to struggle with troublesome engineering problems and tight installation schedules? If so, the implication is that their performance was on par with that of their competitors and that their problems were typical. All that is needed are a few regulatory adjustments, some engineering mods and a little tightening up of processes and procedures.
We have come to expect sleaziness in every aspect of life today (i.e. we have all become cynics, perhaps as a result of being better informed). But sleaziness isn't new, it's always been there, and even for sleaziness there are norms. In the aviation industry, the sleaze-norm is spending (on safety) the absolute minimum required to comply with the regs (and lobby like crazy for looser regs).
It is ironic that an industry that opposes regulation at every turn would choose to do nothing above and beyond minimum compliance. Their sleazy approach makes ever-increasing regulation essential...but we digress.
In our opinion, IFT did not adopt the industry norm of nominal regulatory compliance. Rather, they mounted a massive effort to avoid regulatory scrutiny. And this goes far beyond (or should we say below) industry norms.
There is a concentration level threshold beyond which sleaze is no longer just an irritant. It becomes a deadly toxin. And it is at that threshold that we must draw the line ethically and morally between unforeseeable and preventable, accidental and negligent, and between tragedy and homicide.
We hope the problems highlighted in yesterday's article are the result of unforeseen problems with a new set of technologies, that all concerned are working together to resolve them as soon as possible and that a few tweaks in the system will bring everything into line soon.
We also hope that those who are ultimately responsible for the crash of Swissair 111 will fail in their inevitable effort to avoid responsibility be disappearing into the crowd.
Safety fears over in-flight movies as pilots report electrical fires
Lawrence Donegan in San Francisco
Sunday July 20, 2003
It's as much a part of the flying experience as take-off and landing, but the in-flight movie - popular with the public and a selling point for airlines - is now, say some experts, a safety hazard.
According to figures published this week, airline companies in the States have reported 60 incidents of malfunctioning entertainment systems in the past five years, causing sparks, smoke and even fires. One incident involved a Boeing 757 whose pilots were forced to divert the plane.
Thirteen such incidents have been reported to the US Federal Aviation Administration in the last six months.
The Canadian Transportation Safety Board has reported that a Swissair jet which crashed in 1998, killing 229 people, was caused by problems with the wiring of the in-flight entertainment system. Manufacturers claim that the Swissair tragedy was an aberration and that modern in-flight entertainment systems pose no threat - an assertion supported yesterday by the FAA, which, incidentally, has issued 22 orders to ban, modify or repair certain systems.
Aviation authorities in Australia last week ordered airline companies to modify the electrical wiring on systems fitted to Boeing 767 aircraft.
'The time has long past when we can consider these systems risk-free,' said Jim Shaw, a pilot and safety expert for the US Airline Pilots Association. 'I know of many instances where problems with in-flight entertainment systems created smoke and fire events.'
Alex Richman, an aviation safety software developer, said the problem was far more extensive: 'The 60 reports that are on record are probably the tip of the iceberg. More incidents probably go unreported than are reported.'
More than one-third of the world's planes carry in-flight movie systems - many of them fitted into older aircraft. Fitting new units to an aircraft adds an extra four miles of wiring. One solution would be to use fibre-optic cables instead of electrical wires.
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