Inflight entertainment system overheats, raises concerns about mid-air fires

ALISON AULD Sun Jun 19, 3:56 PM ET
 

HALIFAX (CP) - An entertainment system short-circuited, smoked and heated the insulation aboard two Canadian-operated aircraft, concerning some who see similarities to the crash of Swissair Flight 111 seven years ago.

An airline industry report dated Jan. 22 reveals that a taping unit related to the entertainment system on board an Airbus A320 gave off "sufficient heat to cause burning of the insulation blanket above."

The report states that the temperature was so intense that the unit, much like a VCR, showed signs of heat damage.

It doesn't appear there was a fire around the unit, but some aviation consultants say the incident has disturbing similarities to the chain of events that led to the crash of a Swissair MD-11 jetliner into the ocean off Nova Scotia in 1998, killing all 229 people on board.

"Five years later here is a similar kind of problem identified, visible and there's lack of replacement," Alex Richman, whose company AlgoPlus Consulting analyses aviation data for aircraft operators, said in Halifax.

"Here's a unit that has electrical problems causing smoking and damage to the insulation while the plane is 30,000 feet in the air. That's alarming."

The report also states that the troublesome unit is being replaced on the A320, but that the supply of modified ones has been slow.

The modifications come after an earlier incident in which the taping unit again short-circuited and heated the insulation on the plane, both thought to be operated by Skyservice. Skyservice officials were not available to comment.

"Only seven units have been made available on an exchange basis to date, which is half the quantity required for the aircraft," states the report, which was prepared for the U.S.

Federal Aviation Administration
, the world's top aviation regulator. 

Inflight entertainment systems have come under heavy scrutiny since investigators discovered the wiring for the one aboard the downed MD-11 may have caused or at least contributed to the accident.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada concluded that wiring connected to the entertainment system or another source short-circuited and arced, causing a fire that ignited the adjacent insulation blanket. The blaze led to a catastrophic system failure, filling the cockpit with smoke and leaving the pilots helpless to prevent the disaster.

Clay McConnell, a spokesman for Airbus, said the recent incident bears no similarity to the Swissair crash because the heating occurred inside the unit and the insulation cannot catch fire, unlike the material on the MD-11 at the time of the accident.

"The risk of this propagating into some sort of fire is extraordinarily low," he said from Paris. "This is a minor incident."

McConnell disputed the report's claim that the insulation burned, saying it was only discoloured. He said technicians discovered that the taping unit had shorted out, causing it to smoke. He said that shouldn't happen on modified units, but couldn't explain why only half had been supplied.

Despite tightened regulations over the installation of entertainment systems and closer monitoring of them, aviation agencies have reported dozens of incidents related to the machines since the Swissair crash.

In a recent incident report by the Transportation Safety Board, crew aboard an Air Canada Airbus A319 detected an odour of burning plastic. They cut power in the forward galley and the smell dissipated. When power was restored, the video player was turned on and the smell returned.

Crew disabled the system for the remainder of the flight and later determined that a video monitor was faulty.

Vic Gerden, the Transportation Safety Board's lead investigator on the Swissair crash, said that accident led to more stringent rules for the installation of systems and more vigilant surveillance of existing ones.

"Everybody's monitoring them pretty closely these days," he said from Toronto. "I don't think there's an attempt to remove them on principle, just an attempt to make them as safe as possible and tighten the requirements."

He downplayed the seriousness of the most recent incident, saying "this was one those failures of a part that overheated and the adjacent blanket seems to have stood up and not created an undue hazard."

Lucie Vignola, spokeswoman for Transport Canada, said the agency is looking into the occurrence and any "corrective action to see if we feel there should be anything mandatory."

The scrutiny appears not to have slowed sales of the devices which, according to the World Airline Entertainment Association, were estimated to be $1.8 billion last year.

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