Frequent flier Ron Goltsch loves Continental Airlines' cal entertainment system, which lets him choose from thousands of movies, TV shows, songs and games on long flights between Newark, N.J., and Frankfurt.
Goltsch, an electrical engineer in Parsippany, N.J., is concerned, though, that the system under each seat's arm rest generates too much heat — 105 to 115 degrees — when not in use.
"That's not a good thing," Goltsch says. "Heat and electronics don't mix well."
In-flight entertainment systems, which are becoming more sophisticated and more common at every seat, are raising concerns among others, too.
Airline maintenance workers filed nearly 400 reports of difficulty with the systems to the Federal Aviation Administration during the past 10 years, according to a USA TODAY analysis of FAA data. In the most serious cases, smoke from the systems forced pilots to shut them down and make emergency landings.
The reports have alarmed safety advocates, many of whom are mindful of the Canadian government's claim that not enough safety improvements have been made since investigators cited an electrical wiring problem as the likely cause of a Swissair jet crash 11 years ago. That crash off the coast of Nova Scotia led the FAA and other countries' aviation authorities to ban the type of in-flight entertainment systems that were installed in first and business class on some big Swissair jets.
"We could be setting ourselves up for a déjà vu disaster," says Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Continental, the FAA and other airlines say Goltsch and other travelers have little to worry about. In-flight entertainment systems are safe, they say, and not all reported incidents stemmed from the systems or posed a safety hazard.
But Schiavo and other aviation safety advocates question whether airlines are raising the risk of serious trouble in the air by installing more electronic equipment — such as seatback TV screens and personal video systems at each arm rest — for the pleasure of passengers.
"Any time more wiring is added to an aircraft, there is more chance for something to go wrong," Schiavo says.
Most reports filed with the FAA tell of burning odors or smoke in the passenger cabin or cockpit:
•A JetBlue jblu Airways Airbus A320 jet was flying on Oct. 8 when two loud "pops" were heard coming from the entertainment system in row 20. A "strong electrical smell" subsided after power to the in-seat TVs was shut off.
•A Continental Airlines Boeing ba 757 jet, flying over the Atlantic Ocean on June 24, made an emergency landing on Terceira Island in the Azores, more than 970 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal, after a video monitor in the first row overheated. An electrical smell filled a galley and the cockpit.
•A US Airways lcc Airbus A320 jet en route from Philadelphia to San Juan, Puerto Rico, made an emergency landing in Bermuda on April 26 after smoke and a burning odor emanated from a passenger entertainment system box for two coach seats.
•The entertainment system was turned off to clear smoke on a United Airlines Boeing 767 jet on Jan. 29, 2008. A short circuit was suspected, and "evidence of burning" was found inside a video distribution box under row 17.
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.
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.
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.
But more than a decade after the accident, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, which investigated the crash, says "work still remains to be done" on 18 of 23 recommendations it made to prevent another tragedy. Among other concerns, the board says action hasn't been taken to ensure all insulation materials are fireproof and establish a test to evaluate wiring failures under "realistic operating conditions."
Gail Dunham, executive director of the National Air Disaster Alliance & Foundation, questions whether safety is being compromised so that passengers can be entertained. The foundation, which is composed of many relatives of air crash victims, is part of an FAA safety advisory committee.
She says she's concerned that airlines are installing equipment before determining "accurately and scientifically if the wiring in those systems is absolutely safe."
Frequent flier Goltsch has similar concerns, but he likes "the bells and whistles" airlines are adding to planes. The entertainment makes the time go quicker, he says, especially on long overseas flights.
"However, if the new systems cause problems, leave them off the plane," he says. "A good book is also a fine way to pass the time onboard."