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FAA: Boeing must fix unsafe wiring systems in some 777s

The Federal Aviation Administration says unsafe wiring conditions on some Boeing 777 jetliners need to be fixed to prevent the possibility of a crash from a fire in an in-flight entertainment system.

In a proposed order to be published in the Federal Register Friday, the FAA says wiring systems in about 59 U.S.-registered 777-200 and 777-300 planes must be modified.

The proposed order requires installing wires and changing electricity load-management-systems panels to ensure pilots are able to use a switch in the cockpit to turn off power to the entertainment systems if a fire breaks out.

Without such capability, the FAA says, pilots might not be able “to control smoke or flames in the airplane flight deck or passenger cabin” and could lose control of the plane.

Once a rarity, in-flight entertainment systems have become more sophisticated and more common at every seat. They allow passengers to select movies, TV shows, games and other functions for viewing on individual screens.

The FAA says its proposed order “was prompted by reports of smoke or flames related to wiring for in-flight entertainment systems, cabin lighting and passenger seats in the passenger cabins” of “various” airplanes.

The agency didn’t say how many incidents occurred or when they did.

In its proposed order, the agency mentions incidents of smoke or fire involving MD-11, DC-9 and L-1011 planes, old aircraft types that have largely been phased out of the commercial airline industry.

Airlines and others will have 45 days to make comments about the proposed order after it is published Friday in the Federal Register.

United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have 777-200 jets in their fleets, and American has two 777-300 jets in its fleet, according to data on the three airlines’ websites.

FAA spokesman Les Dorr says the agency’s proposed order, called an “airworthiness directive,” resulted from an agency review of in-flight entertainment systems after the fatal crash of a Swissair jet nearly two decades ago.

“We develop airworthiness directives based on overall safety risk and complexity of the modification, and every airworthiness directive has its own time line,” Dorr says.

On Sept. 2, 1998, a Swissair McDonnell Douglas MD-11 jet that left New York bound for Switzerland crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing all 229 people aboard.

Canadian government accident investigators determined that an electrical wiring problem was the most likely cause of a fire that caused the plane to crash. They said that one or more wires connected to the in-flight entertainment system short-circuited in the area of the fire, though they stopped short of declaring the system responsible for the accident.

Before the Canadian government accident report was issued, USA TODAY published results of a year-long investigation that found lax FAA oversight over the design and installation of the in-flight entertainment systems installed in Swissair jets.

The systems were made by a Las Vegas company that formed four years before the crash that hoped to make money on in-flight gambling.

The systems were installed in a rushed process that violated FAA procedures, using inaccurate or inadequate design data, the USA TODAY investigation found.

Following the accident, the FAA met with industry officials for years to determine solutions for wiring problems on all aircraft, particularly those with old wiring.

The FAA issued directives to correct wiring problems and made policy modifications to provide better oversight over aircraft wiring and entertainment system installations.

Related safety problems, though, were not eliminated.

In 2009, for example, a USA TODAY analysis of FAA data revealed that during the prior 10 years, airline maintenance workers filed nearly 400 reports of difficulty with entertainment systems.

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