About 3 U.S. flights a day
see smoke, fire event


01/01/2003 - Updated 07:40 PM ET 

By Gary Stoller, USA TODAY

Smoke or fire incidents occur on an average of at least three U.S. airline flights a day, according to a recently published estimate by a former senior official in the Federal Aviation Administration.

In-flight smoke and fires mainly in inaccessible areas and compartments on airplanes result in more than 350 unscheduled landings annually, estimates L. Nick Lacey, now an aviation industry consultant for the Morten Beyer & Agnew firm in Arlington, Va.

Lacey headed the FAA's flight standards office before he left the agency in 2001. He and a colleague studied the adequacy of smoke-elimination standards and procedures for EVASWorldwide, which sells emergency equipment to help pilots see through smoke.

More than one in 5,000 U.S. airline flights encounter smoke or fire, leading to at least one in 15,000 flights making an unscheduled landing, their report says.

Some aviation safety experts say Lacey's estimates, which he calls conservative, point out the need to develop plane fire codes and address electrical problems. Earlier this year, the National Transportation Safety Board said air crews need more training to fight in-flight fires and called on the FAA to study the feasibility of redesigning planes so fires behind interior panels would be easier to put out.

"The airlines are exempt from all state and local fire codes," says consumer safety advocate Paul Hudson, who is also a member of the FAA's rulemaking advisory committee. "We've requested over and over to plug this deficiency. Commercial airliners are the only major public spaces not required to have fire-detection and suppression equipment wherever a fire could break out."

In 1998, the FAA issued a rule requiring fire-detection and fire-suppression equipment in cargo compartments but not in other areas of a plane. The rule followed the deaths of 110 people aboard a smoke-filled ValuJet plane that crashed in the Everglades in 1996.

FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto says the FAA has conducted an extensive assessment of wiring safety on airplanes. As a result, it has developed plans to improve wiring maintenance and design and identify degraded wiring, which can cause electrical fires aboard airplanes, he says.

Lacey says his study's calculations are based on a 2000 study done by Jim Shaw, a safety expert for the Air Line Pilots Association. Shaw's study found that airlines filed 1,089 reports of smoke or fire on airplanes from Jan. 1, 1999, to Nov. 2, 1999, with the FAA.

More than half the incidents were "high-temperature" events, such as sparking, arcing or burning, and 82% were related to electrical systems or components, Shaw said.

Flight crews often did not know where the smoke or fire originated, he said.

For years, the FAA has looked at ways to improve the safety of electrical wiring. A short-circuit in wiring was the most likely cause of a fuel-tank explosion that killed all 230 people aboard a TWA jumbo jet in 1996, the NTSB says.

Wiring is also one of the suspects in the crash of a Swissair plane that killed all 229 aboard near Nova Scotia in September 1998. That accident remains under investigation by Canadian authorities.



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