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AMERICAN MORNING

Hazard in the Skies?

Aired July 10, 2003 - 07:43   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: There are new questions being raised right now about whether in-flight entertainment systems are putting airliners in peril. In the 1998 crash of a Swiss Air jet, 229 people died. The Canadian government now concludes that entertainment system wiring may have caused the fire that led to that disaster. Since then, U.S. airlines have reported at least 60 cases in which in-flight systems may have endangered aircraft. Some of the cases involved smoke and fire.
Peter Goelz is a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. He's our guest right now live back there in Washington.

Peter, good morning to you. Thanks for coming in.

A brief description and definition, in-flight entertainment means what on an airplane?

PETER GOELZ, FORMER MANAGING DIRECTOR, NTSB: Well, the definition is expanding. It used to be simply television or movie programs that are piped back to the folks in either business class or in the tourist class. Now, it's expanding to include Internet connections, connectivity and full satellite TV. So, it's an expanding area of the business.

HEMMER: As it expands and as it gets more, let's say, technically savvy on board an airplane, does the danger increase? Does the risk increase with it?

GOELZ: Any time you're retrofitting older aircraft, putting new wiring in, putting new electrical equipment in, there's always an increased risk. It's obviously safer to design in the systems as the plane is being constructed and have it operate in that manner.

HEMMER: Yes, when we talk about the possibility of smoke or fire, when we talk about 60 reported cases over the past five years, does that strike you as a high number or not?

GOELZ: It doesn't particularly. But the issue of in-flight entertainment, of fire and smoke in the cockpit, is one that has concerned the NTSB and the FAA for a number of years. Aging aircraft systems, how wiring, in particular, ages, is of great concern. And there have been a number of accidents, not only Swiss Air 111, but TWA 800. There was great concern about, how about did the electrical charge get into the center fuel tank? And we believe it was through an aging wiring system, that there was a transfer of power. So, it is a concern. HEMMER: Peter, what concerns you, though, at this point, though? When you go back, do you try and retrofit the old flying planes to try and make them more current to satisfy your customers? You talk about one new airline that actually allows passengers to view live television from their seat. It comes in by way of satellite. When you farm out these operations and try and get contractors on the job to make it safe, what concerns you about oversight? Anything there?

GOELZ: Well, Bill, you've put your finger on the real issue. The way in which these systems get retrofitted into planes is through a series of contractors who are designated by the FAA as approved shops that can do this kind of work. The oversight of these designated shops is not as extensive as it should be. And, frankly, the penalties -- when the FAA goes back in and finds that work hasn't been done correctly, what they call the supplemental pipe certification -- that's the approval to put in these kinds of systems in a certain way -- when they find that it hasn't been done correctly, the penalties really are not severe enough.

HEMMER: I've got to tell you, it makes us wonder, it makes us think twice again, too, when we're flying to make sure that the system in place indeed satisfactory. Thanks for giving us something to think about, Peter.

GOELZ: Well...

HEMMER: I'm sorry, a last comment? Go ahead.

GOELZ: Well, I think the FAA is zeroing in on it, and certainly the DOT inspector general is in the middle of a study, and we're going to hear more about this in the near future.

HEMMER: Peter Goelz in D.C. Thanks, Peter. Appreciate it.

GOELZ: Thank you.

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