FAA addresses wiring issues Agency will order steps to improve aircraft inspections

By Alan Levin

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday that it is training its inspectors and engineers to do a better job of spotting problems with aircraft wiring, and it asked airlines and manufacturers to do the same.

Damaged wiring, found most often on older aircraft, can spark fires and explosions in some cases. In a safety program begun after TWA Flight 800 crashed off Long Island in 1996, the FAA found thousands of instances of damaged or improperly installed wiring in 81 older airline jets.

Most of the problems were the result of maintenance on the jets, and the chances of damage increased over time, said John Hickey, who heads the FAA's aircraft-certification division.

The agency also said it would begin a long-term effort to require changes in wiring standards in new aircraft, maintenance procedures that don't damage wiring and improved inspections to spot problems. It hopes to write new rules by 2004, Hickey said.

The FAA's investigation found that ''we needed a safety-enhancement program that covered a broad cross-section of the system,'' Hickey said.

Wiring is suspected of causing two major accidents. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that a spark from damaged wiring most likely downed TWA Flight 800, killing 230 people. Swissair Flight 111 crashed off Nova Scotia in 1998 after a fire broke out, killing 229. The accident is still under investigation, but wiring is one of the chief suspects.

Many of the steps announced by the FAA have been sought by safety advocates and the NTSB. However, some say the effort falls short.

Edward Block, a wiring expert who was part of the FAA inspection team, said the agency's new program of relying mainly on visual inspections is inadequate. More than 100 miles of wire snake through aircraft, most inaccessible to inspectors. Block also said that certain types of wire are more dangerous than others but that the FAA ignored such concerns.

Hickey said the agency is funding efforts to develop better testing equipment to identify hidden wiring problems. He said the training effort is an attempt to prevent the types of problems identified in inspections. For example, the FAA found that standards for wiring during aircraft upgrades were lax, which allowed wiring to be placed where it could be damaged.