Replace Insulation, FAA Urges Airlines
By Don Phillips
Some aviation officials estimated the price tag for the switch could total billions of dollars. The recommendation grew out of the investigation of Swissair Flight 111, which crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia last month. While the cause of the crash is not known, there are indications that some of the wreckage had been subjected to heat, and possibly a fire.
The retrofit, which the FAA said it will likely make mandatory after new flammability tests and specifications are developed in about six months, affects almost all airliners manufactured by Boeing, Airbus Industrie, McDonnell Douglas and Fokker. Officials said the Lockheed L-1011 -- about 200 of which are still flying -- appears to be the only jet manufactured with acceptable insulation. The material under scrutiny is not wiring insulation, but rather looks similar to home insulation and is used for the same purposes -- to minimize noise and trap heat.
The action is not expected to disrupt flight schedules because it would be performed during regular major maintenance periods. Aviation industry officials point out that insulation fires have been extremely rare.
FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said in an interview that the agency does not consider the fire threat serious enough to issue an "airworthiness directive" ordering immediate replacement, but the FAA may change its position if further research proves the threat to be greater than expected. For now, the agency, which had previously certified the material as not flammable, recommends replacement at "any reasonable maintenance opportunity."
"We've gone round and round on that question," Garvey said. But the record of aircraft fires involving insulation does not indicate a widespread or immediate safety threat, she said.
The FAA has known about the potential flammability of jet insulation for at least two years, and possibly longer. But Garvey said she would not second-guess the FAA's failure to take a harder look at insulation or to consider tougher certification tests sooner.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China in 1996 strongly recommended new tests after a Chinese Eastern MD-11 fire in Beijing in 1995. The Chinese agency told the FAA its own tests found that the insulation burst into flames, but the FAA brushed this off because the tests conducted by the Chinese were not required by the FAA. "While the tests you conducted are illustrative, they do not invalidate the certification of the material," the FAA wrote.
In addition, Boeing Co. has developed more stringent tests for its own internal use, leading to the company's recommendation last year that the metalized Mylar insulation -- still in use on the Swissair MD-11 -- be removed from planes manufactured by McDonnell Douglas, which Boeing acquired in 1997. The FAA technical center in Atlantic City also issued a report in September 1997 declaring current testing methods inadequate.
But FAA headquarters did not consider the matter urgent until after the crash of Swissair Flight 111 into the Atlantic Ocean near Halifax. Investigators found pieces of metalized Mylar in the wreckage, although no burned pieces have been found yet. The first major portions of the wreckage were dredged from the ocean floor only yesterday. Still, investigators are examining whether these insulation blankets may have played a role in the crash.
Investigators found metalized Mylar had been implicated in at least three major aircraft fires, in China, Italy and Denmark. Though insulation blankets were not a source of ignition, they erupted into roaring fires when subjected to electrical short circuits. No one was killed in those fires, which took place on the ground.
Thomas McSweeny, the FAA's associate administrator for regulation and certification, said further tests at the FAA's technical center in Atlantic City proved most other insulation used in airliners also would almost certainly fail any new flammability tests. The materials also did not do well in the tests developed by Boeing and used by the Chinese, he said. This includes foam used in Airbus products and metalized Tedlar used on Boeing planes, he said.
Boeing's Tedlar insulation technically passed the company's test -- called a "Q-Tip test" because it involves dropping a burning swab onto insulation samples -- but full burn tests conducted at the FCC center in Atlantic City showed Tedlar also would feed a fire under the right circumstances. Airbus's insulation foam "does not perform very well" in the swab test, he said.
McSweeny said the only clearly acceptable insulation at this point is either fiberglass or a material known as Curlon. Those two products then are wrapped in a polyimide film, commonly known by its DuPont trade name, Kapton.
McSweeny said the FAA will consider any airliner retrofitted with those types of insulation to be grandfathered when new rules are promulgated in six months.
Lockheed, by coincidence, used acceptable insulation when it built the wide-body tri-engine L-1011 jet.
Insulation is used inside aircraft skin throughout the fuselage and in heat-producing areas such as the electronics bay near the cockpit. McSweeny said it is possible that new rules might concentrate on high-heat areas, but it is too early to make such a determination.
Ron Hinderberger, Boeing's director of aviation safety investigations, said he does not consider the FAA's statement an overreaction. He noted that Boeing already used more stringent tests and added that aviation constantly evolves to produce better and safer products.
"This action was not born of a defect," Hinderberger said. "It is an incremental improvement" in aviation safety.
Hinderberger also said that Boeing agrees with the FAA's decision not to issue an immediate order. He said Boeing has no record of any passenger death related to an insulation-fed fire.
A spokesman for Airbus Industrie said the European consortium could not comment on the FAA's stance because it does not have enough details. Likewise, the Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines, said it could not comment. But an airline executive who asked not to be named said the industry was surprised by the action and found McSweeny's comments confusing. "We find it very strange he's making definitive statements like that when it's not clear he's tested all this material," the executive said.
The stakes are high for airlines. The FAA said it has not calculated the cost to the airline industry to replace the insulation. But manufacturing and airline sources said it would likely be more than $1 billion, and perhaps much more. Some experts estimated total replacement could run as high as $3 million a plane, although manufacturing sources said that figure may be inflated.
Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said he could not comment on the technical details of the FAA plan until his staff receives a full briefing.
"I am pleased to hear the FAA has initiated a program to look into this fire-safety issue, which has been of concern to some in the aviation community for at least several years," Hall said. "I agree this is a serious matter that should be addressed expeditiously, and I urge the FAA to take advantage of the resources of all segments of the federal government, including NASA, the military, the national laboratories and the safety board, in their effort."
Garvey said she wants to create a new culture within the FAA to prevent the type of internal delays that may have kept the insulation issue from being acted on sooner.
"Do we have the right mechanisms built in?" she asked. Technicians at Atlantic City or anywhere in the FAA should be able to bring serious matters to the attention of top FAA officials and be assured they will be heard, she said.
McSweeny, just appointed to the FAA's top regulation post, said high-ranking officials are "listening and doing a lot of soul-searching." But he said he had the feeling that the agency had been at least "on the right trail" about insulation.
Several officials within the aviation community, however, none of whom wanted to be quoted by name because they must still deal with the FAA, said the insulation issue is just another example of the "tombstone mentality" that affects the agency.
"Why did it take this crisis to make them move?" said one aviation official. "So much for orderly analysis. It's crisis management all over again."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company