World air fleet may need repair after MD11 crash

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The Independent Online
THE AVIATION industry could be left with a bill for billions of pounds if regulators press ahead with plans to force airlines to replace the insulation that keeps passenger cabins warm and quiet because of fears the material could burst into flames when exposed to excessive heat.

One month after 229 people died when Swissair Flight 111 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Nova Scotia, aviation regulators in the United States have urged airlines to consider replacing the material.

The extraordinary recommendation, issued by the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, would apply to virtually every one of the 12,000 passenger jets now in the skies around the world. They include all planes manufactured by Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Airbus and Fokker. Some experts in the US estimated yesterday it would cost pounds 2m per aircraft to replace existing insulation with a safer substance.

While the FAA has jurisdiction in the United States only, regulatory agencies around the world almost always follow its lead. The Civil Aviation Authority said it would adopt an FAA order.

British Airways, the UK's largest airline, yesterday said it was watching the situation with interest.

"Any new product which has been tried and tested and proved to improve safety will always be of interest to BA," a spokesman said.

For now, the insulation request is not obligatory. In a statement, the FAA chief, Jane Garvey, suggested that airlines "take advantage of any reasonable maintenance opportunity to replace existing insulation materials".

The FAA warned, however, that it expects to introduce new tests and standards for insulation flammability within about six months. After that time, yesterday's recommendation could become an obligatory order. That could cause mayhem in the industry as airlines ground aircraft to complete the work.

The action stems directly from the investigation into the crash last month of the Swissair airliner. While Canadian authorities stressed that no cause for the accident has yet been identified, officials know that the jet was filled with smoke when it dropped into the ocean and may have suffered a fire. The first major portions of the plane were only lifted from the ocean bed two days ago.

The Swissair MD11 was insulated with a substance known as Mylar, which is installed in about 1,000 McDonnell Douglas planes now flying. Recently purchased by Boeing, McDonnell Douglas itself recommended late last year that its customers remove Mylar from their planes. The Swissair aircraft underwent a major overhaul in August 1997, just weeks before that recommendation was issued.

Other materials aside from Mylar are also subject to the FAA memorandum, however. The list includes a form of foam used by Airbus and another substance called Tedlar found on Boeing aircraft.

The only passenger jet that escapes the recommendation Is the wide-bodied Lockheed L-1011, which uses an insulation called Kapton. Lockheed no longer builds airliners.

The FAA is likely to come under pressure to explain why it did not act on the insulation issue earlier. US officials have conceded that Mylar has been implicated in three major aircraft fires in Denmark, Italy and China. It has also been found that electrical short circuits can cause Mylar to burst into flames. In 1996, Chinese regulators warned the FAA that tests showed that Mylar insulation could burst into flames when overheated. The FAA replied: "While the tests you conducted are illustrative, they do not invalidate the certification of the material."