In-Flight Fires an Unresolved Safety Threat

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The regional jet with 30 passengers aboard was cruising at 37,000 feet over Missouri when the pilots smelled something burning. A warning light came on. Then smoke billowed into the cockpit from vents below the co-pilot's window.

The pilots donned oxygen masks, and the co-pilot began fighting a small blaze with a hand-held fire extinguisher.

As the pilot dodged thunderstorms in an emergency descent, the smoke thickened. By the time the Embraer ERJ-145 neared the ground, the pilots could barely see out the windows.

The plane, operated by Trans States Airlines for American Airlines, landed safely April 29 at Springfield-Branson National Airport. The co-pilot suffered minor burns to her wrist, and one passenger was taken to the hospital with an injury from the evacuation, according to Federal Aviation Administration reports and interviews with those familiar with the incident.

The emergency landing was dramatic -- and not unusual -- according to a review of statistics compiled by the FAA. On average, nearly one flight a day in the United States is diverted because of smoke in the cabin or cockpit, the statistics show.

In recent years, major crashes and deaths have declined sharply as authorities and manufacturers have worked to reduce many aviation risks by making changes in airline safety. But the Missouri incident and a flurry of recent diversions have renewed concern over a major safety issue -- in-flight smoke and fire.

Smoke diversions represent only a small portion of commercial flights -- there are about 30,000 departures a day in the United States. Nevertheless, smoke has resulted in the crashes of three airliners in the past decade in North America, killing more than 560 people.

Worldwide, in-flight fires have been the fourth leading cause of commercial aviation fatalities in recent decades, experts say. In 2000, there were 5.3 diversions for smoke per 100,000 flights in the United States. That number dropped to 2.3 in 2003. It rose steadily to 320 diversions in 2005, a rate of 3.2 per 100,000 flights. The number increased to 181 diversions in the first six months of this year, a rate of about 3.8 diversions per 100,000 flights, according to FAA statistics analyzed by The Washington Post.

Regulators, airlines and pilots groups have scrambled in recent years to eliminate some of the smoke-related risks, but some outside experts say more can be done. "One of the most horrific things you can face is an in-flight fire," said Dave Thomas, former head of accident investigation for the FAA. "You are in an aluminum cylinder by yourself, and you have nowhere to go."

The FAA is concerned that planes are getting older and are loaded with more wiring -- the source of the majority of the smoke and fires -- as aircraft offer expanded on-board high-tech equipment and in-flight entertainment systems. Last year, the agency proposed new rules to stiffen requirements on the maintenance, installation and care of wiring. It has also worked to reduce the amount of flammable materials on board.

Still, in a two-day period late last month, authorities reported several incidents. A Delta Airlines flight was evacuated at Boston's Logan International Airport when the pilot smelled smoke after landing. Another Delta flight from Paris to Atlanta was diverted to Knoxville, Tenn., after passengers reported smelling smoke. And a Chicago-bound American Airlines flight was diverted to a New Hampshire airport after passengers reported a burning smell.

Stephen Syta, a passenger on the American Airlines flight, said the flight crew didn't explain why the aircraft was diverted until after it landed.

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