An average of
three to five computer processing units under passenger seats failed
each flight and had to be replaced, Gennari said in an interview
from his office in Rome. "We removed the system (in 1998), because
it had very low reliability, and the under-the-seat boxes were very
poor," he says. "Everything was terrible about the system, and we
were very upset about it."
Gennari says, raised cabin temperatures, making it uncomfortable
for passengers and causing hard drives in the seat boxes to fail.
he does not know why the system met certification requirements but
later performed as poorly as Alitalia officials say it did. "FAA
requirements don't look at a system's longevity and a customer's
satisfaction. FAA rules look at safety," he says.
prominent investors and contract
IFT began wooing
other airlines with a second-generation system that included gambling
games that could generate additional revenue.
also attracted many prominent investors and board members. Alexander
Haig, the former secretary of state, was a consultant and a director.
John Pritzker, a member of the family that owns the Hyatt hotel
chain, was on the board. James Wolfensohn, the head of the World
Bank, bought shares for his children. Another shareholder was Orin
Kramer, a leading Democratic Party fundraiser and a friend of then-president
Bill Clinton. IFT's initial public offering of stock was underwritten
by D. H. Blair Investment Banking, which was led by J. Morton Davis,
a well-connected executive who donated to both political parties
and introduced prominent people like Haig and Wolfensohn to IFT.
In May 1996,
Swissair agreed to pay about $72 million, plus the cost of installation,
upgrades and design modification, for entertainment systems on 16
McDonnell Douglas MD-11s and five Boeing 747 jets. Swissair planned
on offering lotto, keno and video slots to passengers on non-U.S.
routes, and revenue would be shared by the airline, IFT and the
Swiss international lottery system.
before IFT announced its original Swissair deal, the company signed
a consulting agreement with Haig, White House chief of staff under
President Nixon and President Reagan's secretary of state. IFT named
Haig to its board of directors and agreed to pay the influential
Republican $50,000 annually, plus 1% of gross revenue.
Haig says he
called on airlines to buy IFT's entertainment system but wasn't
involved in the Swissair deal. After the deal was finalized, he
says he discussed it with Thomas Schmidheiny, a close friend and
former member of Swissair's board of directors.
one of the world's wealthiest individuals, says that the IFT deal
was brought before the Swissair board, and it agreed to go ahead
with the project.
Swissair's head of in-flight systems, says he recommended IFT's
entertainment system to the airline's top management. When Swissair
closed the deal, he bought 2,700 shares of IFT for $30,000, reported
FACTS, a major Swiss magazine. Three or four other Swissair
employees also bought IFT shares, the magazine reported.
Hollingsead International to install the entertainment systems and
oversee FAA certification. Hollingsead, which manufactured and installed
racks for avionics equipment, specialized in installing passenger
telephone equipment and lacked FAA authority to approve major modification
work on airplanes.
agreement between the companies stipulated that Hollingsead would
prepare an FAA-required "electrical load analysis," a spreadsheet
calculation that would determine the entertainment system's additional
electrical load on the aircraft. The agreement also stated that
the system wiring's interface with the plane's power and existing
systems would be determined by Swissair.
IFT to pay nearly $600,000 to SR Technics, a related company that
maintained its jets, to ensure the entertainment system "was properly
interfaced with the Swissair aircraft" and that the system conformed
to U.S. and European government standards.
who was appointed Hollingsead president years after the Swissair
project, says he cannot comment about anything because his company
and others are involved in lawsuits brought by families of Flight
hired to certify product
hired a subcontractor that did have the authority to issue STCs
— Santa Barbara Aerospace, an FAA-approved "designated alteration
SBA, a subsidiary
of Quaker Holding Co., the world's largest privately held coal company,
was founded in 1994, and, within "three short years," the company
claimed, it had become "one of the 10 largest providers of heavy
jet aircraft maintenance in the U.S."
In August 1996,
SBA sent the FAA's Los Angeles certification office, which oversees
STC projects and designated alteration stations, a letter of intent,
notifying the agency about Swissair's entertainment system project.
Another FAA office, the flight standards district office in Van
Nuys, Calif., was responsible for overseeing SBA's repair station
The letter to
the Los Angeles office omitted critical information. It said the
system would be installed on one MD-11 jet and made no reference
to Swissair's order for 16. The letter didn't specify that Hollingsead
would be involved in the project and that installation would be
done outside the USA. Had the letter described the full scope of
the Swissair project, the project might have drawn more FAA attention.
The FAA has more elaborate procedures for STCs covering multiple
The FAA's Los
Angeles office wrote back to SBA, specifying two additional tests
that would be needed to certify the system. The FAA's response to
a Freedom of Information request shows no further record that FAA
and SBA officials discussed the Swissair's MD-11 entertainment system
project, which continued for more than a year. Much more documentation
would have been expected because no system like it had ever been
used on an airplane. Test plans and reports, and inspection reports
are typically generated for STC projects, according to a 1996 FAA
project required major aircraft modifications — adding at least
2,300 pounds of entertainment equipment to each plane — and the
FAA was aware of repeated problems at SBA. According to government
documents, an FAA inspector at the agency's Van Nuys office cited
SBA in March 1995 for performing, supervising and inspecting work
with inadequate personnel. In September 1995, another FAA inspector
in Van Nuys said SBA didn't provide requested documents and was
still "without the proper staffing." In addition, the FAA said,
some SBA equipment violated federal regulations because it was not
tested for "correct calibration."
Other FAA documents
show that eight officials from the FAA's Los Angeles office reviewed
SBA's status as a designated alteration station in March 1996 and
found at least one problem in each of 11 STCs the company issued.
Two certificates with problems involved SBA work on entertainment
systems unrelated to the Swissair project.
found that SBA was not completing inspection reports as required
by FAA safety rules and the company's designated alteration station
manual. They also said SBA was violating FAA rules by circumventing
a parts-approval process and instructed the company to store its
STCs in locked cabinets to restrict access to them.
rely on FAA approval
In the Swissair
project, Santa Barbara Aerospace issued its first STC in November
1996 for one entertainment system on one MD-11. The certificate
was issued even though the system wasn't functional, FAA documents
show. Only part of the equipment was installed, and the jet had
to return to Swissair's hangar for the rest of the installation
more than a year later.
The MD-11s being
modified also awaited installation of new seats equipped with entertainment
components and lacked another required STC certifying the seats.
So Swissair obtained temporary authorization from the Swiss Federal
Office for Civil Aviation to permit the planes to fly until the
seat certificate was granted.
given permission to operate the planes, although one of the Swiss
aviation agency's inspectors told Swiss newspaper SonntagsZeitung
after Flight 111's crash that his agency had to hurry its inspection
to meet Swissair's flight schedules and that much of the entertainment
system work was not visible. The installations were hidden, and
the inspections were "a pure alibi exercise," inspector Leon Vonlanthen
was quoted as saying.
now president of a small Swiss airline, refuses to discuss the entertainment
The Swiss aviation
agency refused to answer any questions about its oversight role.
After the crash, the agency said it granted Swissair temporary authorization,
because Hollingsead gave SR Technics, Swissair's maintenance arm,
an FAA document, Form 337, that stated the systems met certification
A special FAA
review team formed after the crash said the use of Form 337 did
not violate FAA regulations, but an FAA advisory explicitly says
the form cannot be used for foreign-registered jets, as Swissair's
were. Form 337 is only authorized for use on U.S.-registered aircraft
and is usually used for major repairs — not for major aircraft modifications.
A month after
SBA began certifying the entertainment systems on Swissair jets,
the FAA's Western Pacific region office finally acted on its Van
Nuys inspectors' findings and ongoing concerns about SBA. The office
suspended SBA's operating certificate, according to FAA documents.
should have halted SBA's operations, but the company continued to
work on the Swissair project. On Dec. 16, 1996, four days after
SBA's operating certificate was suspended, an SBA official wrote
a letter to Hollingsead's quality-assurance director and authorized
him to sign an FAA form stating that part of the project met federal
day, the FAA's regional legal office abruptly reversed itself, saying
it had suspended SBA "by mistake" and restored its certificate,
according to a Dec. 31 letter. FAA attorney Sam Frazer, who signed
the letter, said the case against SBA was dropped because the inspector
involved in the case had retired.
the now-retired inspector, says the case should not have been dropped
because he left the agency. A suspension of an operating certificate
and an immediate reversal is suspicious, he says, but he doesn't
know why the FAA legal office acted as it did.
SBA's Mark Ostendorf,
a designated engineering representative, approved much of the IFT
electrical work and did the entertainment system's electrical load
analysis, documents show. The analysis was a critical piece of work
and, according to the Swissair-IFT agreement, Hollingsead was responsible
for doing it.
he is now a paid consultant for the Rose-Walker law firm that represents
SBA's insurance company and is handling lawsuits related to the
Swissair 111 accident. He refused to discuss the entertainment system
In 1995, the
state of California ordered Ostendorf to stop advertising his services
as an electrical engineer. Ostendorf was not violating federal regulations,
however, because an FAA designated engineering representative does
not have to be an electrical engineer.
woes precede Swissair crash
As 1997 unfolded,
difficulties mounted for IFT and SBA.
installation and certification on Swissair were very rushed. The
installations had to be done when an MD-11 was due for a major maintenance
overhaul, and the work had to be done expeditiously, so the plane
could be promptly returned to passenger service. Any time lost would
mean lost revenue for IFT and Swissair. In a January 1997 internal
Swissair newsletter, the company's heavy maintenance project manager
said the "time pressure was enormous" for the IFT project.
On Jan. 21,
1997, Swissair advised its pilots that if problems occurred with
the entertainment system, they should pull a circuit breaker on
an avionics panel to kill power to the whole system. Five days later,
the first passenger flight with an operating entertainment system
flew between Switzerland and Singapore.
The system was
an immediate financial disappointment. IFT said in a March 1997
filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that gaming revenue
on the two MD-11s so far equipped with the entertainment systems
was "significantly less" than expected. In an airline trade publication,
Swissair's Laasner said first-class passengers rebelled over paying
for movies, and only 50 passengers had gambled the limit of $200.
During the fiscal
1997 third quarter, IFT announced that it had lost $18.2 million.
Technical problems also were apparently emerging.
complaining that the entertainment electronics boxes under passenger
seats were getting too hot and causing the hard disk drives to fail.
IFT charged that the hard drives were defective and sued its supplier,
Avnet. In court, Frank Talke, an expert witness for Avnet, testified
that his tests showed that within an hour after IFT's entertainment
system was turned on, heat generated by the system made the hard
drives hot enough to fail. Aboard an airplane, the hard drives would
probably get 10-20 degrees Celsius (50 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit)
hotter than in a laboratory, he said.
Talke and others
say malfunctioning hard drives wouldn't start a fire, but Talke's
testimony may add to the FAA's criticism, made after the crash,
that the IFT system had design shortcomings.
It "was extremely
heavy and used an inordinate amount of power," says John White of
the World Airline Entertainment Association, a trade group of airlines
and in-flight entertainment suppliers. "IFT offered very large video
screens with a lot of capability. The systems were tremendous power
draws that created a lot of heat."
In June 1997,
Qantas engineers spent nearly three weeks at IFT facilities evaluating
the entertainment system. After reviewing IFT's "failure data,"
the engineers said they had serious concerns about the poor reliability
of hard disk drives. A month later, according to a Qantas letter
to IFT that was included in court documents, Qantas rejected the
system, stating that it had a "number of issues" related to the
product. IFT approached other major airlines with direct sales pitches
and at trade conferences, but none bought the system.
In August 1997,
the MD-11 jet that would later crash as Swissair Flight 111 entered
a hangar for a maintenance overhaul by Swissair mechanics and an
entertainment system installation by Hollingsead.
began leaving the company in the fall, a year before the crash.
Haig, Hyatt executives Pritzker and Adam Aron, and Brian Barents,
former chief executive of Cessna and Learjet, resigned from the
board. Hyatt also severed its $120 million alliance agreement with
The FAA conducted
another audit of SBA in May 1998 and found missing information and
a lack of appropriate approvals in STC data files. The agency also
said SBA had certified an aircraft that was not eligible for such
certification. The plane's owner was not identified.
The same month,
IFT said it was ending nearly all its sales and marketing efforts
because of its lack of prospects and need to cut costs. The company
soon announced that it was entering the dry cleaning business.
That fall, a
Canadian airline, WestJet, decided to repossess a plane that SBA
was four months behind in repairing. The plane left Santa Barbara
with three SBA officials onboard and landed at a California airport
where the SBA officials were told to get off and given $200 for
cab fare. The 737 then departed for Canada.
a lawyer who represented WestJet, says that SBA had unskilled and
untrained workers who didn't know how to repair the frame of an
airplane. He says a special Boeing team had to be brought in to
repair it. "It's frightening," he says. "We trust these repair stations
to do work that could be a matter of life and death. It's a shame
that they don't do the work properly."
On Sept. 2,
1998, Swissair Flight 111 took off from New York to Geneva. The
Canadian Transportation Safety Board says about 53 minutes after
takeoff, the pilots detected smoke in the cockpit. About 15 minutes
later, electrical systems malfunctioned, and 61/2 minutes later,
the MD-11 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.
FAA report finds mistakes
after the crash, the FAA began reviewing the performance of designees
who signed off on the entertainment system, according to an Air
Safety Week interview with the FAA's Ronald Wojnar.
and other Swissair officials continued to negotiate with IFT for
more entertainment systems, according to Swissair court documents.
In a fax to IFT that is part of court documents, Laasner said another
entertainment system would be needed for LTU, Swissair's charter
later, on Oct. 29, Swissair announced that it had voluntarily disconnected
the entertainment systems in its jets as a "precautionary measure."
The Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation withdrew a certificate
of validity for the systems.
The FAA soon
launched a "special review" that found numerous problems with the
entertainment systems and their certification but said the agency's
oversight was proper.
The team found
- "In many
instances," SBA did not follow proper certification procedures.
It failed to complete various forms that were required, so there
was no proof that an authorized expert had reviewed and approved
data for flight test reports and tests for flammability and weight
- SBA issued
an amendment approving an entertainment system, although a required
flight test hadn't been done. It "failed to complete" FAA maintenance
requirements and issued parts approval to IFT for entertainment
system components that were not approved.
- Design data
for the Swissair jets "revealed numerous instances" in which the
data for the entertainment system was inadequate or inaccurate.
- SBA didn't
correct problems identified by FAA audits before the crash, and
the FAA did not follow up to ensure corrections were made.
The FAA team
concluded that SBA's designated alteration staff was knowledgeable,
qualified and in good standing. But "in some instances," the staff
"didn't demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the MD-11 type design,
design philosophy, design standards, airplane manufacturer's operational
assumptions and Swissair operational procedures."
It also wasn't
good at keeping required records. Many of SBA's documents certifying
the entertainment systems are missing, the FAA says. Various other
documents, obtained from the FAA under the Freedom of Information
Act, are incompletely filled out. Others are meaningless because
they lack supporting documents, says Chuck Cupani, one of the FAA
designees who approved components of Swissair's entertainment systems.
accident isn't the first time that the FAA's oversight of companies
that do aircraft work has been questioned. In May 1996, the same
month that IFT made its deal with Swissair, a ValuJet DC-9 crashed
in the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 people aboard. The National
Transportation Safety Board said the FAA's inadequate oversight
of ValuJet, which hired contractors to do its maintenance, contributed
to the accident. It also faulted the FAA for not overseeing aircraft
repair stations, like those used by ValuJet closely enough.
Maybe even more
pertinent is a 1993 General Accounting Office report probing the
oversight provided by the FAA and its designees. The report says
that the use of designees rose dramatically, from 299 designees
in 1980 to 1,287 in 1992, as aircraft became more complex and the
FAA's workload increased. The FAA "has not ensured that its staff
are effectively involved in the certification process," the report
Three days after
the FAA team's report on Swissair was completed, the agency's headquarters
in Washington proposed new rules to "ensure that certificated repair
stations are held responsible for all maintenance work that is outsourced
In a September
1999 interview, FAA official John Hickey told the Seattle Times
that the agency's Los Angeles office "probably needed a closer relationship"
with SBA. "There's no information or data that suggest that this
problem exists outside that one case," he said.
system draws scrutiny in accident investigation
in Canada haven't said officially whether IFT's system caused or
contributed to the Swissair crash. The entertainment system drew
suspicion after investigators recovered 21 short-circuited electrical
wires, including at least seven that came from the system. A wire
that short circuits can cause a spark or fire that could ignite
other materials on an airplane.
A final report
on the accident is expected to be released in the next few months.
A draft report is said to devote several pages to the entertainment
system and holds the system partly responsible for the tragedy,
SonntagsZeitung reported in September. The final report could
contain different information from the draft.
In the aftermath
of the crash, however, aviation safety experts have pointed to shortcomings
in both the system's design and its installation.
- Though no
U.S. airlines used IFT's system, the FAA zeroed in on the design
concerns when it banned the system for future use. One problem,
it pointed out, was the system could only be shut off by pulling
a circuit breaker in the cockpit, an action that was far down
the list of emergency responses for pilots dealing with an electrical
problem. A quick response can often be critical in an emergency.
The system was supposed to have an on-off switch accessible to
flight attendants in each MD-11 passenger cabin, according to
the IFT-Swissair business agreement filed with the SEC. The FAA
and Canadian authorities refused to comment.
of other Swissair MD-11s also uncovered problems with the entertainment
system's wiring installation, an FAA official told Air Safety
Week after the crash. "We've seen instances in those airplanes
where they didn't use good industry practices for the installation
of the wiring," the FAA's Wojnar was quoted as saying.
the FAA-designee who IFT first approached to certify its entertainment
system, also faults the wiring installation. He saw a journalist's
photos of wire bundles on other Swissair jets.
was pretty bad," Mlynarczyk says. "They did everything that Installation
101 would tell them not to do. They mixed wire types, installed
wires under metal clamps not designed to hold wire and installed
coaxial cables with right angles. It didn't look like a professional
job. It surprised me because the work was accomplished at Swissair's
facilities, and Swissair doesn't do work like that."
- The entertainment
system, as designed, was connected to the wrong electrical power
source, the FAA's review team said. Airplanes are wired with separate
electrical power buses that control essential functions needed
to fly the plane and for non-essential uses, such as entertainment
systems. On the Swissair jet, the IFT system was wired to the
essential power system. That might have prevented Flight 111's
pilots from quickly shutting down the entertainment system when
the emergency started. "The entertainment installation was a very
rushed process," says Peter Eggler, a Swissair pilot who's participated
in the Canadian accident investigation. "I'm sure that led to
the hookup problem."
Not all theories
about the accident point solely to the entertainment system.
a private expert on aircraft wiring who was hired by lawyers for
families of Swissair victims, says the main wiring on the MD-11
could have been responsible. He examined IFT systems on four Swissair
jets after the crash and found the main wiring and the entertainment
system wiring mixed together in some bundles. That was contrary
to an FAA advisory and could have led to chafing and short-circuiting,
The FAA also
says its post-crash tests of the entertainment system — on a Swissair
MD-11 and on an MD-11 mockup — did not produce conditions that could
be considered unsafe.
maintains that the entertainment system "had nothing to do with
the crash." The entertainment system, he says, "was a victim of
whatever was the cause of the fire and not the source," he says.
Some of the
companies involved in the IFT project are out of business, while
others continue to operate and even prosper.
bankrupt and stopped flying under its own name. Last month, a Swiss
government-sanctioned report by consultant Ernst & Young said
the airline was put out of business by management incompetence and
a lack of aviation expertise. Its corporate successor, Swiss, flies
between the USA and Switzerland, including the New York-Geneva route.
continues its aircraft-modification work, including installing and
now certifying entertainment systems. It says it has been chosen
to install and certify the first cabin video surveillance system
that will allow pilots to monitor passenger activities on U.S. airliners.
SBA filed for
bankruptcy and stopped operating in 1999. But it continued repairing
and modifying jets for months after the Swissair crash. Jay Akely,
a former mechanic who joined the company after the accident, says
that he and other inexperienced mechanics were instructed to do
jobs they weren't qualified to do and did poor repair work. After
one repair, a jet popped a hole in its fuselage during its return
flight from SBA's maintenance facility, he says.
New owners acquired
IFT and changed its name to Global Technologies. The company is
in a "tenuous financial condition," according to a March 2002 document
it filed with the SEC. Last year, Global delisted its stock and
discontinued public reporting of its financial condition.
that has transpired, the company still hasn't veered far from IFT's
original vision. The March SEC filing said Global hopes to be the
first company to sell an interactive entertainment system that will
allow rail passengers in the United Kingdom to play video games
and movies at their seats.
there is an opportunity to be one of, if not the, first in making
available to train operators a customized, at-seat multimedia and
entertainment system solution," the company said.
Chris Woodyard in Phoenix