In-flight entertainment systems raise safety issues

The FAA doesn't track how many planes have in-seat entertainment systems. But Delta Air Lines dal has filed the most incident reports (92) since August 1998, according to available FAA data through mid-February. More than 230 of Delta's approximately 1,000 planes have in-seat entertainment systems, says Betsy Talton, the airline's spokeswoman.

"The safety and security of our passengers and crew is Delta's No. 1 priority, and we are compliant with FAA regulations," she says.

JetBlue Airways, which began flying in 2000 and has attracted passengers with an in-seat entertainment system on its 170 planes, has filed 85 reports.

JetBlue encourages its crews to report all "potential in-flight odor, smoke or fire events," says spokeswoman Jenny Dervin. The airline "believes the cornerstone to in-flight safety starts with early detection, communication and analysis of all events," she says.

The airline, which says its planes with entertainment systems at every seat require 2 more miles of wiring than those without them, will continue to offer passengers more electronic capability on flights.

In December, the airline flew its first flight with e-mail and instant messaging, and plans to similarly equip all its planes. "The goal is not to decrease the amount of wiring by eliminating in-flight entertainment systems but to ensure that the wiring installed provides the highest level of safety," Dervin says.

Worst-case scenario

For safety advocates, Swissair Flight 111 is a symbol of the potential dangers that wiring problems can pose.

On Sept. 2, 1998, two pilots on the flight detected an "unusual" odor and donned oxygen masks after smoke entered the cockpit of a McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 jet flying from New York to Geneva.

A fire had started behind the cockpit. The jet, retrofitted with an in-seat entertainment system manufactured by a now-defunct U.S. company, Interactive Flight Technologies, crashed into the ocean about 73 minutes after it took off from New York's JFK airport.

Canadian accident investigators cited the FAA for poor oversight of the installation and certification of the entertainment system. Investigators said an electrical wiring problem was the most likely cause of the fire but weren't sure which of the jet's wires was responsible.

Wiring expert Ed Block, a member of an FAA wiring advisory committee from 2001 to 2004, says the FAA and the airline industry haven't learned the lessons of Flight 111.

Adding more miles of wire to planes "is beyond foolhardy," he says, adding that the FAA should establish wire performance tests and mandate what type of wiring is safest.

Steps taken, doubts remain

Since the Swissair crash, the FAA has taken some steps to improve wiring safety.

In a written statement, the agency says it has "enhanced" requirements for the design and maintenance of wiring systems, and required passenger jet makers to install more flame-resistant insulation materials in new planes. Insulation material caught fire on the Swissair flight. The new requirements "will minimize the occurrences of smoke and fire," as in-flight entertainment systems "become more complex," the FAA says.

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