FAA unveils effort to upgrade aircraft inspections, wiring Announcement is sparked by checks that reveal problems on older planes

October 02, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Aviation Administration, concerned that a spark from a brittle wire could cause a disaster such as the 1996 crash of Paris-bound TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, N.Y., announced a major effort yesterday to inspect and upgrade wiring in the nation's aging fleet of passenger airplanes.

The wiring announcement stemmed partly from a close inspection of five older planes undergoing heavy maintenance -- three DC-10s, a DC-9 and a Boeing 727. An engineering team found wires that were stiff or cracked and others that were dirty from spilled hydraulic fluid or metal shavings.

The team concluded that current maintenance procedures do not adequately address concerns about aging wires.

"Did we find anything that tells us we should take planes out of service? The answer is no," said FAA Administrator Jane F. Garvey. "But we do see a need to improve inspections and maintenance practices. We know there's more that we can do to do our jobs even better."

Airline representatives were generally pleased with the plan, which they said would probably not drive fares higher.

Likewise, Boeing, the nation's only producer of large passenger jets now that it has bought McDonnell Douglas, said it supported the FAA's action.

But consumer groups said the FAA could do more to improve fire prevention and suppression on airliners. A fire of unknown origin apparently caused the crash of Swissair Flight 111 in the seas off Nova Scotia last month, killing all 229 people aboard.

The average age of aircraft now flown by U.S. carriers is 16 years, a figure expected to rise to 18 to 20 years within the next decade.

The new FAA plan is patterned on an existing program that improved structural inspections of older aircraft after the cabin roof of an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 sheared off in midair in in 1988.

The plan calls for a mix of new government regulations, voluntary safety measures by the airlines and research aimed at reducing the risk of electrical fires.

Later this year, the FAA will propose new design rules to prevent fuel system wiring from becoming the source of a potentially catastrophic spark. In May, after the discovery of worn wires on ++ Boeing 737s, the FAA asked carriers to inspect all aircraft for fuel tank wiring problems.

Garvey said the new rules would aim to prevent power surges to devices that measure the fuel level in the tank. The requirements, already in place for older Boeing 747s, will be applied to all other types of aircraft.

Finally, the FAA plan calls for a five-year research effort to improve electrical safety. One goal is to develop a system that can shut off power in a circuit if a spark or surge is detected.

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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