Aviation Safety:

Installation of Smoke Detection and Fire Suppression Systems in U.S. Transport Aircraft

RCED-98-54R: Published: Dec 19, 1997. Publicly Released: Dec 19, 1997.

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John H. Anderson, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the actions under way at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and within the airline industry to effect changes in fire safety standards for cargo or baggage compartments in certain passenger and cargo aircraft within the 3-year time frame proposed by FAA. GAO focused on the: (1) status of FAA's and the airline industry's efforts to equip aircraft cargo compartments with new smoke detection and fire suppression systems; and (2) factors that may affect the timetable for equipping the entire fleet with new equipment.

GAO noted that: (1) the FAA and the aviation industry have taken the initial steps to begin installing smoke detection and fire suppression systems in aircraft cargo and baggage compartments; (2) FAA has accelerated its rulemaking procedures for installing these systems with the goal of publishing the final rule by January 1, 1998; (3) the rule includes a plan to monitor and report, on a quarterly basis, the status of retrofitting affected aircraft; (4) in addition, FAA has certified smoke detection and fire suppression systems for DC-9 and 737 aircraft; (5) discussions with affected aircraft manufacturers revealed that most plan to: (a) develop, test, and certify systems; (b) issue technical installation instructions; and (c) offer modification kits to airlines; (6) GAO's survey of 15 major, national, and regional airlines indicates that most of those surveyed believe that the retrofit of affected aircraft can be accomplished in 3 years, the compliance period suggested in FAA's proposed rule; (7) in discussions with smoke detection and fire suppression system suppliers, GAO found that current suppliers of smoke detection equipment have developed more sensitive and reliable equipment to meet FAA's requirement of smoke detection within 1 minute and that emerging detection and suppression technologies may reduce modification costs and speed installation of the systems; (8) detection and suppression suppliers' capacity to provide equipment to meet the retrofit program requirements and the use and availability of halon are not likely to affect the timetable; (9) a lack of standardization in the application of FAA's test criteria for certifying smoke detection and fire suppression systems and repair stations' capacity, if installation cannot be accomplished during annual scheduled maintenance, could slow industrywide installation; and (10) in addition, GAO is concerned that: (a) not all airlines have fully developed plans to retrofit affected aircraft; (b) any delays in publication of FAA's final rule could delay industry's efforts to retrofit aircraft; and (c) FAA's proposed compliance reporting may not provide sufficient information for effective congressional oversight.

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