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How an IFE brought a plane down
How inflight entertainment brought down a plane

February 27, 2012 Read later
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Jim Harris of the Canadian Transportation Safety Board examines a piece of fuselage from Swissair Flight 111 in 1998. Photo: AP

Wednesday, September 2, 1998, was a seminal moment in the evolution of flight, but not for the right reasons.

On that night in the cold north Altantic ocean, 229 people died as a result of one of the tragic follies that have accompanied the development of the affordable luxuries of high-speed jet air travel.

It was already an heroic achievement that airline chefs and engineers had worked out how to serve their customers tasty hot meals at 40,000 feet prepared half a day before takeoff.

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I once stood in a room full of Japanese chefs and kitchen hands meticulously placing thousands of near-identical culinary creations, piece by piece, in trays that would be later loaded into the service galleys of Boeing 747s at Tokyo's Narita airport.

That was a standard of airborne civilisation I had never seen before. And have rarely seen since. The art of in-flight cuisine went downhill after Western accountants became involved.

But, at that time in the 1990s, there was a parallel revolution occurring in the provision of inflight entertainment. Emirates Airlines of Dubai had burst onto the scene with a clever strategy that had its competitors scrambling to imitate it.

The strategy was simple: free personal entertainment units in every seat in every class. And it went without saying that Emirates’s strategy was also to use brand-new planes. The combination was irresistible and, with its low-cost foundation in the Arab world, Emirates is now well on the way to becoming the world’s biggest international airline.

Still, established airlines like Qantas, with a long history of engineering aircraft as well as flying them, baulked at the inflight entertainment (IFE) revolution: not only were the systems heavy, adding several tonnes to the all-up weight and displacing paid cargo, they had hundreds of metres of wiring and ran very hot, soaking up even more of the air-conditioning resources already being used to create the illusion of terrestrial luxury for the paying public. The fact that they were notoriously unreliable also largely defeated the purpose: a customer grumpy because their video machine wasn’t working was a bad advertisement for an airline.

But still everyone had to have IFE. Which is why Swissair, which went broke shortly after, had installed IFE on its MD11s, the updated version of the DC10.

However, modern technology hadn’t caught up with the flammable insulation blankets it used to protect the wiring looms in the IFE system in the roof behind the cockpit on Flight 111 from New York to Geneva. The plane became unflyable after the wiring short-circuited and started a fire, which filled the cockpit with smoke.

The deaths of all on board cast a pall over North Atlantic aviation until the terrorism attacks in the US in 2001.

A decade later, it looks as though the engineers are on top of the problem – though with a solution designed by IT engineers in Silicon Valley, not aircraft engineers.

The new systems now going into planes are much lighter and are designed to use customers’ own tablets and iPads. It’s the ultimate system for airlines because it massively lowers the cost of providing one of their key inflight products.

All that’s left to be decided is whether it’s user-pays or included in the ticket price. For most long-haul airlines, it’s gratis.

However, the long-term trend is for every inflight product to be “monetised”. You’ll eventually pay for everything separately: it’s in the new airline bible under “ancillary services”.

Do you expect free IFE? Are you willing to pay for it? How much? Over what flight length are you happy to amuse yourself or read a newspaper, magazine or book instead?
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