IFE fire aboard BA 747 “first time” for system

An electrical fire that was sparked by the inflight entertainment system on a British Airways Boeing 747 represents “the first time this thermal anomaly has ever happened” on this particular IFE system, says the manufacturer Rockwell Collins.

The Daily Mail yesterday reported that the incident occurred on 13 October, as the 747 was flying over the North Atlantic en route from Dallas to London Heathrow with 275 passengers on board.

The fire, as described by the news agency, would have been in the Primary Access Terminal (PAT) that is located in the Purser Station under the stairs on a 747. Crew successfully extinguished the fire, and the UK’s Air Accident Investigation Branch is investigating the incident.

BA’s 747s carry legacy Rockwell Collins IFE systems. In 2006, Rockwell Collins was selected by BA to upgrade the so-called TES (total entertainment system) on the 747s with audio/video on demand functionality to improve the passenger experience. The plug-and-play capability of TES enabled the upgrade to digital TES – known as dTES – without changing or replacing wires, distribution or seat electronics. In short, the aged hardware remained in place.

A Rockwell Collins spokesman confirms to Runway Girl Network that the IFE in question was indeed dTES, and says, “We’re currently investigating the root cause of the issue, and actually we’ll conclude [our investigation] in the coming weeks. We’re getting close to determining the cause.

“The team is putting together a report that should be available, at least for BA, in the coming weeks and then they’ll take the lead on what they’re going to say. But at this point, from what we have seen in our investigation, we don’t see any reason to ground other aircraft. There is no major concern at this point for that system on the other aircraft. If there was, we’d be vocal about it.”

The carrier can certainly weather a single incident in which crew snuffed out an IFE-related fire before any serious damage occurred. And the fire could have been prompted by something as simple as a fan overheating. But beyond this particular incident, the IFE does not have a good track record with passengers, who complain about frequent system failures. BA pays out thousands of Air Miles in Service Recovery, and crew even carry pre-printed forms to hand out to the passengers who wish to claim for the failures.

In 2008, BA agreed on a deal to purchase the Thales TopSeries IFE for its new delivery and next-generation aircraft, including its Boeing 777s, 787s and Airbus A380s. The carrier did not earmark the 747s for retrofit with TopSeries since the jumbos are being gradually phased out.

But now the carrier “must speed up retirement”, suggests one long-time industry insider. “I subscribe to a web site for frequent flyers and the question of the IFE is constantly being discussed. Passengers are talking of walking away from BA because if this failure.”

Should BA do routine checks on the wiring in light of this one incident? “Once the wiring is installed and working, it is pretty stable,” notes the expert. “I do know that there were some early issues with metal cutlery from the meal trays falling off the trays and shorting out the power sockets under the seats. This, on a couple of occasions, caused sparks and smoke… and a lot of panic.”

BA could not be immediately reached for comment.

Overall the poor reliability is due mainly to bad initial design, suggest various industry observers, some of whom believe BA erred when it decided to keep some of the wiring from its earlier system – and Rockwell amended the design – to create dTES.

Personally I’ll always remember when a satellite industry executive stood up at a conference to explain how his wife, a flight attendant with Air France, regularly complains about the frequent failures of the Rockwell Collins IFE system on the carrier’s aircraft. But unlike BA, the system on Air France – and many Lufthansa aircraft – is Rockwell Collins’ eTES system (“e” for enhanced), which, while sometimes problematic from a ‘passenger experience’ (#PaxEx) standpoint, is considered an improvement over dTES.

In 2006, Rockwell Collins famously opted not to develop IFE systems for the A380 and later the 787, a move that took the manufacturer out of the twin-aisle market. Some believe that the “disaster” that was the dTES program prompted this decision. Rockwell Collins has not confirmed this assertion.