- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2005

Airlines would have to remove or repair insulation in more than 800 Boeing planes because it could contribute to a fire, under a rule proposed by the Federal Aviation Administration yesterday.

The insulation poses a minor threat, but it has burned in some cases when sparks shot from electrical wires that run throughout the jets, said John Hickey, director of the FAA’s aircraft certification service.

“There is an extremely low-level risk of anything happening, but even one event is one too many,” Mr. Hickey said.

The insulation primarily protects passengers and crew members from engine noise and frigid outside temperatures and is used extensively between interior and exterior walls of Boeing jets.

Investigators began to more closely examine aircraft for fire hazards in 1998, after Swissair Flight 111 caught fire during flight and fell into the ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia. The crash killed all 229 persons aboard and led the FAA in 2000 to order removal of another insulating material, called Mylar, from more than 700 MD-11s made by McDonnell-Douglas, manufacturer of the Swissair plane that crashed. McDonnell-Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997.

Airliners have until June 30 to remove Mylar.

Boeing became aware of problems with insulation in its jets in 2002 during routine maintenance of a 767, Boeing Commercial Airplanes spokeswoman Liz Verdier said.

In November 2003, the FAA concluded that the insulation could contribute to the spread of a fire when there are sparks from wires running along the insulation.

“Fire and airplanes are a bad mix,” Mr. Hickey said.

The insulation was made from 1981 to 1988 by Orcon Corp. in Union City, Calif., and the material remains in 831 Boeing jets — 727s, 737s, 747s, 757s and 767s — registered by U.S. airlines.

Boeing’s insulation met the FAA’s certification standards when the manufacturer developed the material in 1981, but fire safety standards changed subsequently.

Airlines would have until 2011 to repair the planes under the FAA’s proposed directive, which is scheduled to take effect after a 60-day comment period.

Ms. Verdier said it is not clear which U.S. airlines are using the planes in question.

The FAA estimates it will cost $330 million to remove and replace the insulation from all planes that have the material.

Boeing is developing a method that could fix the problem less expensively. The company is making a solution that airlines can spray onto insulation. It would prevent airlines from having to remove the material by letting them coat it to eliminate the risk of fire. The spray-on barrier won’t be ready until next year and hasn’t been approved by the FAA, but that alternative would cost airlines an estimated $200 million.

In addition to the 831 U.S. planes with the faulty insulation, foreign carriers are flying 782 Boeing planes lined with the insulation.

Aviation regulators outside the United States are likely to follow the FAA’s lead and propose a rule forcing airlines to remove the material, Mr. Hickey said.

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