Doomed plane's gaming system exposes holes in FAA
By Gary Stoller, USA TODAY
A small Las Vegas company with large ambitions
and marquee investors sold U.S. regulators and Swissair on a video
gaming system for airplanes. Until Flight 111 crashed, no one
realized how many chances had been taken with passengers'
Flight 111 was dubbed "the U.N. shuttle" for
its popularity with United Nations officials, although passenger
lists regularly carried the names of prominent scientists, researchers
and business executives, too. Hours after the jumbo jet crashed
into the Atlantic Ocean on Sept. 2, 1998, killing all 229 people
aboard, Canadian and U.S. aviation authorities zeroed in on something
else that was distinctive about Flight 111. (Aftermath: Changes since FAA review of Flight 111)
The McDonnell Douglas MD-11 was one of only a
few jets in the world with a pioneering interactive entertainment
system that let passengers select and watch movies on personal
consoles, shop and, on various international flights, use credit
cards to play computer casino games. Although the final accident
report has not yet been released, the Canadian government has
considered the system's electronics as a possible source of an
electrical fire that may have caused the crash.
The system was made by Interactive Flight
Technologies, a Las Vegas company that formed only four years before
the crash. It hoped to make a fortune on in-flight gambling, a
business that looked rich with opportunity in the early 1990s.
Instead of a big payoff, however, the venture produced only failure
Less than two months after the crash, Flight
111's destruction prompted Swissair to disconnect IFT systems on its
planes. A year after the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration
banned their use on MD-11s. For the past year, USA TODAY has
investigated how a piece of equipment that was so quickly
discredited came to be installed on a major international airline —
with the FAA's approval by proxy — in 1996.
It is a tale of a small, unknown company backed
by politically connected investors who used a flawed regulatory
system to its advantage. The investigation exposes a lack of FAA
supervision and the agency's reliance on thousands of private
companies to certify major airplane alterations. Among the
- IFT benefited from lax FAA oversight. After the crash,
the FAA said the IFT system's design and installation were unsafe.
The agency didn't catch the problems sooner because no one
directly employed by the FAA reviewed the system's design or
installation plans, supervised the installation or signed off on
any work. All of that was done by a company that the FAA
authorized to approve airplane modifications on its behalf. Yet
the FAA had repeatedly criticized that company, Santa Barbara
Aerospace (SBA), for violating regulations and even briefly
revoked its operating authority as IFT systems were being
installed on Swissair jets in 1996.
- Swissair's entertainment systems were installed in
Switzerland in a rushed process that violated FAA procedures.
In many instances, SBA did not follow proper certification
procedures, and inaccurate or inadequate design data were used.
Much of SBA's paperwork required to prove the system was properly
certified is missing or was never completed. The Swiss government
said it allowed the Swissair jets to fly with the IFT system
because it relied on forms completed by FAA designees attesting
that the system met U.S. safety standards. One form that the Swiss
relied upon was used in violation of the FAA's rules for
certifying changes to foreign-registered aircraft.
- After the Swissair crash, the FAA tightened
oversight of private companies and individuals authorized to act
on its behalf, but problems remain. Its post-crash review of
other airliner entertainment systems turned up 18 installations
that were improperly certified and unsafe. The FAA now demands
more interaction between its officials and FAA designees during
aircraft-modification projects and mandatory refresher training
for engineers authorized to act on the agency's behalf. But, some
designated engineers (DER's) say, the FAA lacks the technical expertise
and resources to oversee the projects.
USA TODAY pieced together the story of the IFT
entertainment system from more than 100 interviews and a review of
tens of thousands of pages of government documents, including more
than 1,000 pages obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and
court records. This is the story.
IFT struggles to develop interactive system
IFT was founded by Yuri Itkis, president of
FortuNet, a Las Vegas-based manufacturer and distributor of
electronic bingo and interactive video gambling games. Itkis, a
Russian-born engineer and inventor, says he used his own $276,000 to
start the company in February 1994 with his sons, Michail and Boris,
and to build a prototype interactive system.
IFT promised airlines a revolutionary product —
an interactive system that would generate revenue by allowing
passengers to choose a pay-per-view movie or to gamble at their
seats. At the whim of a passenger, a movie could be stopped or
started, forwarded or reversed.
"We were ahead of our time," Itkis says. "We
were the pioneers, and we started to preach this idea to the
In August 1994, IFT approached Edward
Mlynarczyk, a private engineering representative designated
to act on the FAA's behalf, to certify components and help bring the
overall system to the FAA for a required supplemental type
certificate (STC). An STC represents FAA approval for modifying an
airplane from its original design and is granted after a rigorous
process of sign-offs on design data, components and test results. An
STC can be obtained from the FAA or from one of about 30 certified
aviation repair shops.
Mlynarczyk is one of thousands of designees
used by the FAA to help certify aircraft modifications. Under a
decades-old program almost unknown to the public, the agency allows
designees to be paid by the companies contracting them for
Mlynarczyk says IFT's system was very
rudimentary and unsuitable for aircraft use, but the company
pressured him to accelerate the certification process. He says much
work was needed before the equipment could pass FAA tests, including
environmental and electromagnetic interference tests.
"They had no clue what it would take to get an
STC," says Mlynarczyk. "They would send some information about the
system, and when we'd say, 'That's not good enough,' they'd say,
'You're trying to gouge us for more money.' They were running out of
funds and trying to shortcut so many things."
Mlynarczyk says he received a phone call from a
representative of stockbroker D.H. Blair & Co., who asked him
whether certification was near and whether he'd like to get in on
the ground floor of IFT's initial public stock offering. IFT went
public in March 1995.
Such an offer could violate a federal bribery
law, which applies to anyone, like Mlynarczyk, acting on behalf of
the government. The law, which imposes a fine and up to 15 years
imprisonment, is violated by offers of "anything of value to any
public official" with intent "to influence any official act."
Mlynarczyk says he turned the offer down.
Several years later, D.H. Blair and 13 former employees were found
guilty of defrauding investors in 15 IPOs — including IFT's —
through stock-price manipulation. Four of those employees —
including the vice chairman — received prison sentences. The company
is now defunct.
A month after the stock offering, Mlynarczyk
says he canceled his contract with IFT because the company kept
changing its entertainment system specifications and pressuring him
to speed up the certification process. Two days later, while he was
away, two men arrived at his Florida office in a limousine with New
York state license plates and demanded that his wife hand over the
prototype and related data, Mlynarczyk says.
His wife refused their demands because IFT
still owed $30,000. The two men handed over $30,000 in cash and then
cut the prototype system into parts when it didn't fit into the
limo, Mlynarczyk says.
Itkis says he can't recall Mlynarczyk, but he
laughed when he was told about Mlynarczyk's account. "He has a very
vivid imagination," Itkis says. "It sounds like a movie scenario.
Can I get rights to it?"
First customer finds flaws
About the same time IFT parted ways with
Mlynarczyk, it also landed its first customer. Alitalia agreed to
pay $2.7 million for the hardware components for five IFT
entertainment systems. William Ashworth, an FAA designee and former
FAA aircraft-certification official, was hired by IFT to certify
that the systems installed on Alitalia met FAA standards.
In August, 1995, Ashworth operated the IFT
system on a test flight, made sure it didn't affect other onboard
electronics and approved it. He says the FAA closely monitored the
certification process as well, often talking daily with engineers at
his company — Elsinore Aerospace — and eventually signing off on the
STC he issued. In December, the first passenger flight equipped with
the system, installed only in business- and first-class, flew round
trip between Rome and Chicago. Alitalia officials say they
encountered myriad problems. The airline bought the system because,
"It was the only one that could provide video on demand," says
Alfredo Gennari, Alitalia's project manager, but soon noticed design
and engineering flaws. It was a difficult system to control and
maintain, he says.
An average of three to five computer processing
units under passenger seats failed each flight and had to be
replaced, Gennari said in an interview from his office in Rome. "We
removed the system (in 1998), because it had very low reliability,
and the under-the-seat boxes were very poor," he says. "Everything
was terrible about the system, and we were very upset about it."
Gennari says, raised cabin
temperatures, making it uncomfortable for passengers and causing
hard drives in the seat boxes to fail.
Ashworth says he does not know why the system
met certification requirements but later performed as poorly as
Alitalia officials say it did. "FAA requirements don't look at a
system's longevity and a customer's satisfaction. FAA rules look at
safety," he says.
IFT lands prominent investors and contract
IFT began wooing other airlines with a
second-generation system that included gambling games that could
generate additional revenue.
The company also attracted many prominent
investors and board members. Alexander Haig, the former secretary of
state, was a consultant and a director. John Pritzker, a member of
the family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain, was on the board. James
Wolfensohn, the head of the World Bank, bought shares for his
children. Another shareholder was Orin Kramer, a leading Democratic
Party fundraiser and a friend of then-president Bill Clinton. IFT's
initial public offering of stock was underwritten by D. H. Blair
Investment Banking, which was led by J. Morton Davis, a
well-connected executive who donated to both political parties and
introduced prominent people like Haig and Wolfensohn to IFT.
In May 1996, Swissair agreed to pay about $72
million, plus the cost of installation, upgrades and design
modification, for entertainment systems on 16 McDonnell Douglas
MD-11s and five Boeing 747 jets. Swissair planned on offering lotto,
keno and video slots to passengers on non-U.S. routes, and revenue
would be shared by the airline, IFT and the Swiss international
Three weeks before IFT announced its original
Swissair deal, the company signed a consulting agreement with Haig,
White House chief of staff under President Nixon and President
Reagan's secretary of state. IFT named Haig to its board of
directors and agreed to pay the influential Republican $50,000
annually, plus 1% of gross revenue.
Haig says he called on airlines to buy IFT's
entertainment system but wasn't involved in the Swissair deal. After
the deal was finalized, he says he discussed it with Thomas
Schmidheiny, a close friend and former member of Swissair's board of
Schmidheiny, one of the world's wealthiest
individuals, says that the IFT deal was brought before the Swissair
board, and it agreed to go ahead with the project.
Karl Laasner, Swissair's head of in-flight
systems, says he recommended IFT's entertainment system to the
airline's top management. When Swissair closed the deal, he bought
2,700 shares of IFT for $30,000, reported FACTS, a major
Swiss magazine. Three or four other Swissair employees also bought
IFT shares, the magazine reported.
IFT contracted Hollingsead International to
install the entertainment systems and oversee FAA certification. Hollingsead, which manufactured and installed racks for avionics
equipment, specialized in installing passenger telephone equipment
and lacked FAA authority to approve major modification work on
The business agreement between the companies
stipulated that Hollingsead would prepare an FAA-required
"electrical load analysis," a spreadsheet calculation that would
determine the entertainment system's additional electrical load on
the aircraft. The agreement also stated that the system wiring's
interface with the plane's power and existing systems would be
determined by Swissair.
Swissair required IFT to pay nearly $600,000 to
SR Technics, a related company that maintained its jets, to ensure
the entertainment system "was properly interfaced with the Swissair
aircraft" and that the system conformed to U.S. and European
Bill Weaver, who was appointed Hollingsead
president years after the Swissair project, says he cannot comment
about anything because his company and others are involved in
lawsuits brought by families of Flight 111 victims.
Subcontractor hired to certify product
Hollingsead hired a subcontractor that did have
the authority to issue STCs — Santa Barbara Aerospace, an
FAA-approved "designated alteration station.(DAS)"
SBA, a subsidiary of Quaker Holding Co., the
world's largest privately held coal company, was founded in 1994,
and, within "three short years," the company claimed, it had become
"one of the 10 largest providers of heavy jet aircraft maintenance
in the U.S."
In August 1996, SBA sent the FAA's Los Angeles
certification office(LACO), which oversees STC projects and designated
alteration stations, a letter of intent, notifying the agency about
Swissair's entertainment system project. Another FAA office, the
flight standards district office (FSDO) in Van Nuys, Calif., was
responsible for overseeing SBA's repair station activities.
The letter to the Los Angeles office omitted
critical information. It said the system would be installed on one
MD-11 jet and made no reference to Swissair's order for 16. The
letter didn't specify that Hollingsead would be involved in the
project and that installation would be done outside the USA. Had the
letter described the full scope of the Swissair project, the project
might have drawn more FAA attention. The FAA has more elaborate
procedures for STCs covering multiple aircraft.
The FAA's Los Angeles office wrote back to SBA,
specifying two additional tests that would be needed to certify the
system. The FAA's response to a Freedom of Information request shows
no further record that FAA and SBA officials discussed the Swissair MD-11 entertainment system project, which continued for
more than a year. Much more documentation would have been expected
because no system like it had ever before been used on an airplane. Test
plans and reports, and inspection reports are typically generated
for STC projects, according to a 1996 FAA application guide.
The Swissair project required major aircraft
modifications — adding at least 2,300 pounds of entertainment
equipment to each plane — and the FAA was aware of repeated problems
at SBA. According to government documents, an FAA inspector at the
agency's Van Nuys office cited SBA in March 1995 for performing,
supervising and inspecting work with inadequate personnel. In
September 1995, another FAA inspector in Van Nuys said SBA didn't
provide requested documents and was still "without the proper
staffing." In addition, the FAA said, some SBA equipment violated
federal regulations because it was not tested for "correct
Other FAA documents show that eight officials
from the FAA's Los Angeles office reviewed SBA's status as a
designated alteration station in March 1996 and found at least one
problem in each of 11 STCs the company issued. Two certificates with
problems involved SBA work on entertainment systems unrelated to the
The officials found that SBA was not completing
inspection reports as required by FAA safety rules and the company's
designated alteration station manual. They also said SBA was
violating FAA rules by circumventing a parts-approval process and
instructed the company to store its STCs in locked cabinets to
restrict access to them.
Swiss authorities rely on FAA approval
In the Swissair project, Santa Barbara
Aerospace issued its first STC in November 1996 for one
entertainment system on one MD-11. The certificate was issued even
though the system wasn't functional, FAA documents show. Only part
of the equipment was installed, and the jet had to return to
Swissair's hangar for the rest of the installation more than a year
The MD-11s being modified also awaited
installation of new seats equipped with entertainment components and
lacked another required STC certifying the seats. So Swissair
obtained temporary authorization from the Swiss Federal Office for
Civil Aviation to permit the planes to fly until the seat
certificate was granted.
Swissair was given permission to operate the
planes, although one of the Swiss aviation agency's inspectors told
Swiss newspaper SonntagsZeitung after Flight 111's crash that
his agency had to hurry its inspection to meet Swissair's flight
schedules and that much of the entertainment system work was not
visible. The installations were hidden, and the inspections were "a
pure alibi exercise," inspector Leon Vonlanthen was quoted as
Vonlanthen, now president of a small Swiss
airline, refuses to discuss the entertainment system inspection.
The Swiss aviation agency refused to answer any
questions about its oversight role. After the crash, the agency said
it granted Swissair temporary authorization, because Hollingsead
gave SR Technics, Swissair's maintenance arm, an FAA document, Form
337, that stated the systems met certification requirements.
A special FAA review team formed after the
crash said the use of Form 337 did not violate FAA regulations, but
an FAA advisory explicitly says the form cannot be used for
foreign-registered jets, as Swissair's were. Form 337 is only
authorized for use on U.S.-registered aircraft and is usually used
for major repairs — not for major aircraft modifications.
A month after SBA began certifying the
entertainment systems on Swissair jets, the FAA's Western Pacific
region office finally acted on its Van Nuys inspectors' findings and
ongoing concerns about SBA. The office suspended SBA's operating
certificate, according to FAA documents.
The suspension should have halted SBA's
operations, but the company continued to work on the Swissair
project. On Dec. 16, 1996, four days after SBA's operating
certificate was suspended, an SBA official wrote a letter to
Hollingsead's quality-assurance director and authorized him to sign
an FAA form stating that part of the project met federal
The following day, the FAA's regional legal
office abruptly reversed itself, saying it had suspended SBA "by
mistake" and restored its certificate, according to a Dec. 31
letter. FAA attorney Sam Frazer, who signed the letter, said the
case against SBA was dropped because the inspector involved in the
case had retired.
Keith Thompson, the now-retired inspector, says
the case should not have been dropped because he left the agency. A
suspension of an operating certificate and an immediate reversal is
suspicious, he says, but he doesn't know why the FAA legal office
acted as it did.
SBA's Mark Ostendorf, a designated
engineering representative, approved much of the IFT electrical work
and did the entertainment system's electrical load analysis,
documents show. The analysis was a critical piece of work and,
according to the Swissair-IFT agreement, Hollingsead was responsible
for doing it.
Ostendorf said he is now a paid consultant for
the Rose-Walker law firm that represents SBA's insurance company and
is handling lawsuits related to the Swissair 111 accident. He
refused to discuss the entertainment system project.
In 1995, the state of California ordered
Ostendorf to stop advertising his services as an electrical
engineer. Ostendorf was not violating federal regulations, however,
because an FAA designated engineering representative does not have
to be an electrical engineer.
IFT, SBA woes precede Swissair crash
As 1997 unfolded, difficulties mounted for IFT
The entertainment installation and
certification on Swissair were very rushed. The installations had to
be done when an MD-11 was due for a major maintenance overhaul, and
the work had to be done expeditiously, so the plane could be
promptly returned to passenger service. Any time lost would mean
lost revenue for IFT and Swissair. In a January 1997 internal
Swissair newsletter, the company's heavy maintenance project manager
said the "time pressure was enormous" for the IFT project.
On Jan. 21, 1997, Swissair advised its pilots
that if problems occurred with the entertainment system, they should
pull a circuit breaker on an avionics panel to kill power to the
whole system. Five days later, the first passenger flight with an
operating entertainment system flew between Switzerland and
The system was an immediate financial
disappointment. IFT said in a March 1997 filing with the Securities
and Exchange Commission that gaming revenue on the two MD-11s so far
equipped with the entertainment systems was "significantly less"
than expected. In an airline trade publication, Swissair's Laasner
said first-class passengers rebelled over paying for movies, and
only 50 passengers had gambled the limit of $200.
During the fiscal 1997 third quarter, IFT
announced that it had lost $18.2 million. Technical problems also
were apparently emerging.
Swissair began complaining that the
entertainment electronics boxes under passenger seats were getting
too hot and causing the hard disk drives to fail. IFT charged that
the hard drives were defective and sued its supplier, Avnet. In
court, Frank Talke, an expert witness for Avnet, testified
that his tests showed that within an hour after IFT's entertainment
system was turned on, heat generated by the system made the hard
drives hot enough to fail. Aboard an airplane, the hard drives would
probably get 10-20 degrees Celsius (50 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit)
hotter than in a laboratory, he said.
Talke and others say malfunctioning hard drives
wouldn't start a fire, but Talke's testimony may add to the FAA's
criticism, made after the crash, that the IFT system had design
It "was extremely heavy and used an inordinate
amount of power," says John White of the World Airline Entertainment
Association, a trade group of airlines and in-flight entertainment
suppliers. "IFT offered very large video screens with a lot of
capability. The systems were tremendous power draws that created a
lot of heat."
In June 1997, Qantas engineers spent nearly
three weeks at IFT facilities evaluating the entertainment system.
After reviewing IFT's "failure data," the engineers said they had
serious concerns about the poor reliability of hard disk drives. A
month later, according to a Qantas letter to IFT that was included
in court documents, Qantas rejected the system, stating that it had
a "number of issues" related to the product. IFT approached other
major airlines with direct sales pitches and at trade conferences,
but none bought the system.
In August 1997, the MD-11 jet that would later
crash as Swissair Flight 111 entered a hangar for a maintenance
overhaul by Swissair mechanics and an entertainment system
installation by Hollingsead.
IFT directors began leaving the company in the
fall, a year before the crash. Haig, Hyatt executives Pritzker and
Adam Aron, and Brian Barents, former chief executive of Cessna and
Learjet, resigned from the board. Hyatt also severed its $120
million alliance agreement with IFT.
The FAA conducted another audit of SBA in May
1998 and found missing information and a lack of appropriate
approvals in STC data files. The agency also said SBA had certified
an aircraft that was not eligible for such certification. The
plane's owner was not identified.
The same month, IFT said it was ending nearly
all its sales and marketing efforts because of its lack of prospects
and need to cut costs. The company soon announced that it was
entering the dry cleaning business.
That fall, a Canadian airline, WestJet, decided
to repossess a plane that SBA was four months behind in repairing.
The plane left Santa Barbara with three SBA officials onboard and
landed at a California airport where the SBA officials were told to
get off and given $200 for cab fare. The 737 then departed for
Gregory Long, a lawyer who represented WestJet,
says that SBA had unskilled and untrained workers who didn't know
how to repair the frame of an airplane. He says a special Boeing
team had to be brought in to repair it. "It's frightening," he says.
"We trust these repair stations to do work that could be a matter of
life and death. It's a shame that they don't do the work
On Sept. 2, 1998, Swissair Flight 111 took off
from New York to Geneva. The Canadian Transportation Safety Board
says about 53 minutes after takeoff, the pilots detected smoke in
the cockpit. About 15 minutes later, electrical systems
malfunctioned, and 6½ minutes later, the MD-11 plunged into the
Internal FAA report finds mistakes
Within hours after the crash, the FAA began
reviewing the performance of designees who signed off on the
entertainment system, according to an Air Safety Week
interview with the FAA's Ronald Wojnar.
But Laasner and other Swissair officials
continued to negotiate with IFT for more entertainment systems,
according to Swissair court documents. In a fax to IFT that is part
of court documents, Laasner said another entertainment system would
be needed for LTU, Swissair's charter airline.
Three weeks later, on Oct. 29, Swissair
announced that it had voluntarily disconnected the entertainment
systems in its jets as a "precautionary measure." The Swiss Federal
Office for Civil Aviation withdrew a certificate of validity for the
The FAA soon launched a "special review" that
found numerous problems with the entertainment systems and their
certification but said the agency's oversight was proper.
The team found that:
- "In many instances," SBA did not follow proper certification
procedures. It failed to complete various forms that were
required, so there was no proof that an authorized expert had
reviewed and approved data for flight test reports and tests for
flammability and weight and balance.
- SBA issued an amendment approving an entertainment system,
although a required flight test hadn't been done. It "failed to
complete" FAA maintenance requirements and issued parts approval
to IFT for entertainment system components that were not approved.
- Design data for the Swissair jets "revealed numerous
instances" in which the data for the entertainment system was
inadequate or inaccurate.
- SBA didn't correct problems identified by FAA audits before
the crash, and the FAA did not follow up to ensure corrections
The FAA team concluded that SBA's designated
alteration staff was knowledgeable, qualified and in good standing.
But "in some instances," the staff "didn't demonstrate a thorough
knowledge of the MD-11 type design, design philosophy, design
standards, airplane manufacturer's operational assumptions and
Swissair operational procedures."
It also wasn't good at keeping required
records. Many of SBA's documents certifying the entertainment
systems are missing, the FAA says. Various other documents, obtained
from the FAA under the Freedom of Information Act, are incompletely
filled out. Others are meaningless because they lack supporting
documents, says Chuck Cupani, one of the FAA designees who approved
components of Swissair's entertainment systems.
The Swissair accident isn't the first time that
the FAA's oversight of companies that do aircraft work has been
questioned. In May 1996, the same month that IFT made its deal with
Swissair, a ValuJet DC-9 crashed in the Florida Everglades, killing
all 110 people aboard. The National Transportation Safety Board said
the FAA's inadequate oversight of ValuJet, which hired contractors
to do its maintenance, contributed to the accident. It also faulted
the FAA for not overseeing aircraft repair stations, like those used
by ValuJet closely enough.
Maybe even more pertinent is a 1993 General
Accounting Office report probing the oversight provided by the FAA
and its designees. The report says that the use of designees rose
dramatically, from 299 designees in 1980 to 1,287 in 1992, as
aircraft became more complex and the FAA's workload increased. The
FAA "has not ensured that its staff are effectively involved in the
certification process," the report says.
Three days after the FAA team's report on
Swissair was completed, the agency's headquarters in Washington
proposed new rules to "ensure that certificated repair stations are
held responsible for all maintenance work that is outsourced to
In a September 1999 interview, FAA official
John Hickey told the Seattle Times that the agency's Los
Angeles office "probably needed a closer relationship" with SBA.
"There's no information or data that suggest that this problem
exists outside that one case," he said.
Entertainment system draws scrutiny in
Aviation authorities in Canada haven't said
officially whether IFT's system caused or contributed to the
Swissair crash. The entertainment system drew suspicion after
investigators recovered 21 short-circuited electrical wires,
including at least seven that came from the system. A wire that
short circuits can cause a spark or fire that could ignite other
materials on an airplane.
A final report on the accident is expected to
be released in the next few months. A draft report is said to devote
several pages to the entertainment system and holds the system
partly responsible for the tragedy, SonntagsZeitung reported
in September. The final report could contain different information
from the draft.
In the aftermath of the crash, however,
aviation safety experts have pointed to shortcomings in both the
system's design and its installation.
- Though no U.S. airlines used IFT's system, the FAA zeroed in
on the design concerns when it banned the system for future use.
One problem, it pointed out, was the system could only be shut off
by pulling a circuit breaker in the cockpit, an action that was
far down the list of emergency responses for pilots dealing with
an electrical problem. A quick response can often be critical in
an emergency. The system was supposed to have an on-off switch
accessible to flight attendants in each MD-11 passenger cabin,
according to the IFT-Swissair business agreement filed with the
SEC. The FAA and Canadian authorities refused to comment.
- Inspections of other Swissair MD-11s also uncovered problems
with the entertainment system's wiring installation, an FAA
official told Air Safety Week after the crash. "We've seen
instances in those airplanes where they didn't use good industry
practices for the installation of the wiring," the FAA's Wojnar
was quoted as saying.
Mlynarczyk, the FAA-designee who IFT first
approached to certify its entertainment system, also faults the
wiring installation. He saw a journalist's photos of wire bundles on
other Swissair jets.
"The installation was pretty bad," Mlynarczyk
says. "They did everything that Installation 101 would tell them not
to do. They mixed wire types, installed wires under metal clamps not
designed to hold wire and installed coaxial cables with right
angles. It didn't look like a professional job. It surprised me
because the work was accomplished at Swissair's facilities, and
Swissair doesn't do work like that."
- The entertainment system, as designed, was connected to the
wrong electrical power source, the FAA's review team said.
Airplanes are wired with separate electrical power buses that
control essential functions needed to fly the plane and for
non-essential uses, such as entertainment systems. On the Swissair
jet, the IFT system was wired to the essential power system. That
might have prevented Flight 111's pilots from quickly shutting
down the entertainment system when the emergency started. "The
entertainment installation was a very rushed process," says Peter
Eggler, a Swissair pilot who's participated in the Canadian
accident investigation. "I'm sure that led to the hookup problem."
Not all theories about the accident point
solely to the entertainment system.
Edward Block, a private expert on aircraft
wiring who was hired by lawyers for families of Swissair victims,
says the main wiring on the MD-11 could have been responsible. He
examined IFT systems on four Swissair jets after the crash and found
the main wiring and the entertainment system wiring mixed together
in some bundles. That was contrary to an FAA advisory and could have
led to chafing and short-circuiting, he says.
The FAA also says its post-crash tests of the
entertainment system — on a Swissair MD-11 and on an MD-11 mockup —
did not produce conditions that could be considered unsafe.
IFT's Itkis maintains that the entertainment
system "had nothing to do with the crash." The entertainment system,
he says, "was a victim of whatever was the cause of the fire and not
the source," he says.
Some of the companies involved in the IFT
project are out of business, while others continue to operate and
Swissair went bankrupt and stopped flying under
its own name. Last month, a Swiss government-sanctioned report by
consultant Ernst & Young said the airline was put out of
business by management incompetence and a lack of aviation
expertise. Its corporate successor, Swiss, flies between the USA and
Switzerland, including the New York-Geneva route.
Hollingsead continues its aircraft-modification
work, including installing and now certifying entertainment systems.
It says it has been chosen to install and certify the first cabin
video surveillance system that will allow pilots to monitor
passenger activities on U.S. airliners.
SBA filed for bankruptcy and stopped operating
in 1999. But it continued repairing and modifying jets for months
after the Swissair crash. Jay Akely, a former mechanic who joined
the company after the accident, says that he and other inexperienced
mechanics were instructed to do jobs they weren't qualified to do
and did poor repair work. After one repair, a jet popped a hole in
its fuselage during its return flight from SBA's maintenance
facility, he says.
New owners acquired IFT and changed its name to
Global Technologies. The company is in a "tenuous financial
condition," according to a March 2002 document it filed with the
SEC. Last year, Global delisted its stock and discontinued public
reporting of its financial condition.
Despite all that has transpired, the company
still hasn't veered far from IFT's original vision. The March SEC
filing said Global hopes to be the first company to sell an
interactive entertainment system that will allow rail passengers in
the United Kingdom to play video games and movies at their
"We believe there is an opportunity to be one
of, if not the, first in making available to train operators a
customized, at-seat multimedia and entertainment system solution,"
the company said.
Contributing: Chris Woodyard in Phoenix