Maintenance workers aren't the only ones reporting problems. Pilots and flight attendants have lodged them with NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System, a small office that aims to improve air safety by collecting voluntary reports of aviation incidents and identifying deficiencies. Many airline personnel aren't aware of the agency's reporting system.
A NASA data search at USA TODAY's request found 44 such reports — all except one from pilots and flight attendants — about incidents that occurred from 1999 through 2008. The exception was a report from an airline technician. The reports don't identify airlines by name, to protect the identity of the person reporting the incident:
•On a Boeing 767 flight last August, a flight attendant noticed "a smell that could be described as burning wires." The video system stopped working, smoke entered the cockpit, and the plane returned to the airport, where it landed safely.
•On a Boeing 757 flight last May, pilots put on oxygen masks and smoke goggles, and declared an emergency landing after a controller for a video system became very hot, and an "acrid smell," and "wisps of smoke" were detected in the cockpit. After the plane landed safely, firefighters found melted rubber on a wire bundle related to the controller. Using the oxygen mask and goggles while landing the plane "was dangerous — extremely cumbersome and confusing," the captain reported.
Reports 'taken seriously'
The FAA, aircraft manufacturers and airlines say the number of incidents — which represent a tiny fraction of the 10 million or so flights made by U.S. airlines annually — shouldn't alarm travelers. They say they closely monitor or investigate all reports of trouble and take action when needed to ensure safety.
"The FAA takes all reports of smoke and fires very seriously," spokesman Les Dorr says. "We ensure all necessary actions are taken to determine the event's root cause and to identify any needed safety actions."
Passenger jet makers, such as Airbus and Boeing, install entertainment systems on new planes. On older planes, entertainment-system manufacturers often use contractors to install them.
Airbus says it's impossible to address all incidents reported to the FAA with a single statement, because each one needs to be examined in detail. However, the European aircraft maker says, the reports are a valuable tool in pointing up potential problems.
"Although manufacturers try to design and produce systems that will not fail, real life shows that it may not always be the case," Airbus says in a written statement. "What is important, therefore, is the ability of the system to detect an anomaly and to prevent it from getting worse."
Boeing, the U.S. jet manufacturer, says in a written statement that it "investigates and analyzes each event reported to us for safety implications." It works with airlines, it says, "to make sure appropriate measures are taken to eliminate future events."
David Castelveter, vice president of the Air Transport Association of America, which represents 17 U.S. airlines, says the FAA reports "can help flag for further research potential issues that may be common or recurring." He says, however, that some problems reported on entertainment systems later were traced to other sources, such as a coffee maker, de-icing fluid or air-conditioning equipment.
Airlines say that they adhere to FAA requirements for the systems and that their priority is passenger safety.