The Failure of ATOS
   

of their IFEN

as a Swissair 111 Crash Cause

  

Report may answer questions on possible local link to crash



When Canadian investigators disclose later this month (on 27 March) what they believe caused a September 1998 airliner crash off Nova Scotia, renewed attention may focus on Santa Barbara Aerospace, a now defunct aircraft-refurbishing firm once among this area's biggest employers.

About an hour after Swissair Flight 111 left New York bound for Geneva, an electrical fire between the cockpit and cabin disabled the MD-11 jet. It plunged into the chilly Atlantic Ocean six miles south of Peggy's Cove, killing all 215 passengers and 14 crew members aboard. The force of hitting the water from as high as 10,000 feet shattered the

 decade-old plane into approximately 2 million pieces, some of which sank 190 feet to the ocean floor. Over the 18 months that followed, salvage crews aided by thousands of military personnel and equipment managed to recover about 98 percent of the wreckage, officials said.In what has been the longest and most expensive investigation ever conducted by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada -- costing an estimate $50 million over the 4 1/2 years -- experts laboriously examined and reconstructed key pieces of the plane ranging from silver dollar-sized scraps to 16-foot-long chunks of fuselage. A report due to be released on March 27 will publicly announce the board's findings on the likely causes of the crash, and presumably answer questions that quickly emerged on whether electrical shorts related to a unique entertainment system on board the plane sparked Flight 111's tragic end. Santa Barbara Aerospace, under authority designated by the Federal Aviation Administration, was responsible for certifying that the interactive entertainment system had been installed according to FAA safety standards. Whether or not shoddy design and installation of the pioneering entertainment system helped bring Flight 111 down, speculation over that as a factor in the crash definitely contributed to the speedy financial collapse of Santa Barbara Aerospace, said Martin Rose, a partner in the Rose-Walker law firm of Dallas. "The rumors swirling about this definitely hurt their business, when, in fact, they didn't do anything wrong. The bad publicity early on, from speculation, hurt Santa Barbara Aerospace's business a lot." In any case, the once flourishing company -- which had operated since 1994 from leased space in a Santa Barbara Municipal Airport hangar now owned by Ampersand Holdings Inc. -- left town about three months after the crash. It relocated to San Bernardino, declared bankruptcy there in the spring of 1999 and ceased business altogether later that year. At its peak, the company employed several hundred people locally.

The entertainment system, meanwhile, was designed by Interactive Flight Technologies of Phoenix, and the system was put into the Flight 111 plane and about a dozen other Swissair MD-11s by SR Technics of Zurich, Switzerland, in 1997 and 1998. The add-on electronics were integrated into the airplanes' wiring system by Hollingsead International. The pioneering system's computer components and touch screens, installed at each seat in the first-class and business sections of those planes, enabled passengers to watch pay-per-view movies, shop online, play video games and even gamble electronically. Jim Harris, a spokesman for the Canadian safety agency, said the pending TSB report "will get close" to pinning down what caused the fire that brought down Flight 111, but he declined to be more specific. "There's usually no such thing as a single cause of an (airline) accident," he cautioned. "A multiplicity of things are almost always contributing factors. I have yet to see a single accident that had one cause."

According to a story published last fall in a Swiss newspaper, and a lengthy USA Today investigative piece last month, an early draft of the safety board's report concluded the fire was at least partly due to problems with the computerized entertainment system. "That was speculative story from Switzerland," responded Mr. Harris. "I think you'll have to wait for the (final) report to come out. "He also would not comment on a portion of the Feb. 17 article by USA Today reporter Gary Stoller that read, "the Canadian government has considered the system's electronics as a possible source of an electrical fire that may have caused the crash. "The entertainment system quickly came under suspicion after investigators found dozens of short-circuited wires in the wreckage, several from that system. Investigators have yet to say whether they think those wires shorted due to heat from the fire or, in fact, sparked it. Their exhaustive inquiry has also turned up other possible factors, including airplane insulation blankets made from materials deemed too flammable, and a potentially dangerous type of insulation known as Kapton covering miles of wiring inside that plane and many other commercial airliners. Experts say laboratory tests have shown Kapton can sometimes burst into flames if the coating cracks or wears through, resulting in an electrical short. Mr. Stoller's story asserted Santa Barbara Aerospace hadn't followed mandated procedures or properly completed all the required paperwork before certifying that the entertainment system installed on the MD-11s met FAA safety standards. It cited the Swissair case as a glaring example of "a flawed regulatory system" in which the FAA had increasingly delegated its authority for inspecting airplane modifications to

 dozens of private companies like SBA. "We don't know what caused the crash," Mr. Stoller told the News-Press during a recent phone interview. "We're waiting for the Canadian government to say. "However, after spending what he said was more than a year reviewing thousands of pages of official documents and interviewing hundreds of people about the crash, "there's no question in my mind that (SBA) bore responsibility for improper certification of an interactive entertainment system," the reporter added. "My biggest concern," Mr. Stoller remarked, "is the way the FAA oversees its designee system and farms out so many of its duties" for ensuring the safety of airline renovations. The FAA refused to comment on those accusations. "Generally we're not responding to Mr. Stoller's story in USA Today," said Alison Duquette, an FAA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. "That story asserts or suggests a cause for the accident and, of course, the TSB has not made that determination or issued their final report. The experts haven't come out with their findings yet. "The suggestion that the crash had anything to do with the entertainment system, or SBA's actions in certifying its design and installation, was strongly disputed by an attorney handling all related lawsuits against the company. "Factually, Santa Barbara Aerospace has nothing to do with the (midair electrical) failure, nor does the entertainment system," said Mr. Rose. "Whatever started that fire wasn't the entertainment system," he added. "The (FAA) testing found nothing in that system's design or installation that could result in a safety issue. "That seems to square with findings of a Special Certification Review Team, as disclosed by the FAA in June 1999.Even during "fault testing," under conditions more severe than ones likely to occur in flight, "no abnormal operational features" were noted in the entertainment system or "its affect on other airplane systems," the FAA report states. "Neither the IFEN (entertainment) system components nor wiring produced conditions that could be considered unsafe when exposed to the types of faults that could be

The Inflight Passenger Entertainment Systems are sucking up a lot of juice

encountered during airplane operation. "Yet, three months after issuing that report, the federal agency banned installation of the IFEN system on all MD-11 airplanes registered in the U.S. Even though a two-month investigation turned up no problems with the wiring or installation, FAA investigators concluded that system's electrical power switching was not compatible with the design of the MD-11. Specifically, extra steps required to turn off power to the entertainment system could limit "the flight crew's ability to respond to a smoke or fumes emergency," the FAA noted in a Sept. 29, 1999, statement announcing the ban. Mr. Rose has a different take on why the agency banned the entertainment system after finding no abnormalities. "How many letters are there in the word "Politics?'" he sarcastically remarked. The ban, he said, "was sort of a nice little piece of public relations that was meaningless. "The only U.S. planes that had such systems were a handful of MD-11s and Swissair had voluntarily disconnected all of those units soon after Flight 111 crashed. "The IFEN is not currently installed on any U.S. airplane and is deactivated on Swissair craft," the FAA acknowledged in its announcement.

 In recent years, a variety of different interactive entertainment systems have become commonplace on commercial airlines, but none with the same design as those on the ill-fated MD-11."The FAA has since taken a number of actions to ensure previous and future IFE (in-flight entertainment) systems do not have the same design features as those on the accident plane," according to Ms. Duquette. Mr. Rose is representing SBA's insurers in defending it against lawsuits stemming from the crash. Swissair and Boeing, the parent company of MD-11's manufacturer, early on assumed all liability for the crash, in response to dozens of lawsuits from victims' relatives and other parties. To date, those two companies -- Swissair went bankrupt but later re-emerged as an airline company called Swiss -- have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements related to Flight 111, according to Mr. Rose."A lot of people suspect the final numbers (total settlements) will be between $300 million and $400 million," he said.In the wake of those payouts, insurance companies for Boeing and Swissair are in turn suing SBA and several other companies, Mr. Rose added. "They're looking to get some of their money back. "He insists the FAA report in 1999 exonerated SBA of any wrongdoing or responsibility for the crash. However, Mr. Stoller of USA Today contends that investigation turned up serious problems with the project's certification process. For years before that, too, "the FAA was aware of repeated problems at SBA," he wrote.

Government documents show, he said, that the company was cited in March 1995 for "performing, supervising and inspecting work with inadequate personnel. "In March 1996, officials found that SBA wasn't completing inspections reports, as required by FAA safety rules, the USA Today story added. In December 1996, SBA's operating certificate from the FAA was briefly suspended, just as the company began certifying the installation of the entertainment systems on the Swissair MD-11s. The license was reinstated within days, though, with an FAA lawyer explaining it had been suspended "by mistake." "It doesn't add up," Mr. Stoller observed. "When they (FAA officials) pull a company's certificate, a lot of thought is put into it. Why was SBA's operating certificate quickly given back and did they say, 'Oops, we made a mistake!'" he wondered aloud. In an unrelated case, the FAA fined the local company $300,000 in mid-1998, about three months before Flight 111 crashed, for illegally shipping hazardous materials. In April 1997, SBA had put a shipment of seven, metal oxygen generators with plastic safety caps on a commercial flight to Houston, Texas. Such generators, used to provide oxygen if a plane losses cabin pressure, were banned from airline cargo holds by the FAA after ones being transported on a ValuJet plane burst into flames, causing a May 1996 crash that killed 110 people in the Florida Everglades.

  

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