In-flight entertainment systems raise safety issues

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.

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