A video-entertainment system caught fire aboard an Air Canada
Airbus passenger jet parked at Vancouver International Airport
last year, drawing a frightening parallel to the Swissair disaster
off Nova Scotia that killed all 229 people on board in 1998.
The Vancouver fire, which occurred 40 minutes before passengers
were set to board, has spurred a series of safety directives
related to the replacement of faulty components and the installation
of special switches to cut electrical power to entertainment
The in-charge flight attendant aboard the Airbus A330-300 on
Jan. 17, 2002, shut off the power switch to the forward-galley
entertainment system at the first sign of trouble.
However, two internal six-volt batteries continued to power
the system while completing a systematic shutdown, giving new
life to the smouldering fire.
Details of the fire are contained in a federal transportation
safety board report concluded in January but obtained for the
first time by The Vancouver Sun this week.
"It powers itself for two minutes even after it's shut down,"
regional safety board manager Bill Yearwood confirmed in an
interview from his Richmond office. "That's the concern. The
crew wasn't aware of the intricacies of the system."
Fortunately, the Vancouver incident occurred on the ground
and the flight attendant managed to put out the blaze using
a halon fire extinguisher while it was contained to the entertainment
However, the circumstances are hauntingly reminiscent of the
crash of a Swissair MD-11 aircraft off Peggy's Cove. A federal
report being released today into that crash is expected to point
to a fire in the wiring of the entertainment system as the possible
"There are a lot of concerns about flight entertainment systems,"
said Yearwood. "The issue is that these systems may not be as
stringently scrutinized as normal aircraft components."
The P@ssport entertainment system that caught fire aboard the
Airbus in Vancouver had been repaired by manufacturer Rockwell
Collins Inc. of Pomona, Calif., three times over the preceding
In October 2001, the processing board that included a faulty
U-18 switching regulator was replaced. In November, the system
was returned to Rockwell Collins after it started to smoke.
In December, it was returned once more and another processing
The U-18 component is used in 539 processing boards in P@ssport
systems aboard 27 aircraft worldwide, the report said.
In August 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration in the
U.S. had issued a series of airworthiness directives ordering
the installation of power switches on entertainment systems
that could not be completely powered off.
But those directives did not extend to the P@ssport system
or the Airbus model that caught fire in Vancouver.
As a direct result of the Airbus fire, Rockwell Collins issued
a number of service bulletins requiring airlines to replace
defective U-18 components built before July 2000, said the safety
Airbus is also issuing its own service bulletins ordering the
installation of a main power switch for all P@ssport entertainment
systems aboard A330 and A340 aircraft.
Air Canada is complying with the bulletins, said the safety
Angela Mah, spokesman for Air Canada in Vancouver, said there
are eight Airbus A330-300 aircraft in the company's fleet, each
with a capacity of 292 passengers.
She could not immediately provide specifics on the number of
passengers scheduled to board the plane that caught fire or
its destination, but confirmed it is Air Canada policy to act
on all safety bulletins.
The fallout from these incidents is affecting at least one
Vancouver-based charter operator.
Brent Statton, general manager for HMY Airways, said Transport
Canada ordered the company to deactivate the entertainment systems
aboard two Boeing 757 aircraft brought into Canada last fall
until they meet safety concerns. In the meantime, the company
has been flying to destinations as far afield as Mexico and
Britain without in-flight movies.
"The concern has arisen from the incident in Nova Scotia,"
Statton confirmed. "True, some customers are disappointed a
movie is not available. But the most important thing is safety."
Transport Canada officials refused to talk about the issue
of aircraft entertainment systems pending release of the Swissair