BOSTON — The airline industry's decision to retrofit most passenger planes with smoke detectors represents a small but significant step in improving US aviation safety.
Under the agreement announced yesterday in Washington, 25 airlines will install fire detectors in cargo holds of about 3,700 planes, at a cost of about $400 million. The measure is intended to reduce the likelihood of accidents such as the ValuJet crash in May, which government officials believe was caused by a fire in the cargo hold of the aircraft.
Yesterday's announcement stems from a commission headed by Vice President Al Gore, charged with working with the airline industry to improve safety and security measures.
The commission began its work after the July 17 explosion of TWA Flight 800 over Long Island, in what has turned out to be the worst year on record for deaths worldwide from aviation accidents.
Mr. Gore said the airlines' decision to install fire-detection devices is "an important step on the path to improved safety. It signals the beginning of a change on how the government and industry work together to improve safety goals." He was flanked by President Clinton and executives from major airlines.
The move is the latest by the vice president's commission to improve the industry's safety record. The commission released a report in October that called for increased security practices at airports, such as baggage matching, enhanced cargo and mail inspections, and deeper background checks on airline employees. Those measures have all been adopted.
The commission's next report, to include more safety recommendations, is due to be released in February.
The major carriers involved in yesterday's announcement, represented by the Washington-based Air Transport Association, are acting voluntarily, but the Federal Aviation Administration had already announced plans to mandate fire-detection devices in passenger planes that don't yet have them.
On Nov. 14, just before the National Transportation Safety Board opened hearings on the Florida ValuJet crash that killed 110 people, the FAA announced it was drafting a rule to require the fire-detection and suppression devices. The FAA regulation will also cover airlines not included in yesterday's announcement - all smaller, commuter airlines, such as ValuJet. At least two other serious cargo fires have occurred in passenger planes in the past 10 years.
The NTSB has not released results of its ValuJet investigation, but investigators believe oxygen generators transported in the forward cargo hold of the DC-9 burst into flames and eventually destroyed the aircraft's controls.
According to a simulated fire in a cargo hold, which the NTSB showed during last month's ValuJet hearings, about seven minutes elapsed between the time the fire ignited and when it roared out of control.
The plane's cargo bay had no fire-detection or fire-suppression devices. If it had, experts say, ValuJet's flight crew might not have left the runway in Miami, or would have had time to turn around and land safely.
The NTSB had recommended in 1988 that fire-detection devices be installed in all aircraft, but the FAA rejected the recommendation as too costly.
"If you look historically at accidents, [a fire] is a very rare event," says Clint Oster, a business professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, and co-author of the book "Why Airplanes Crash."
But "a little bit of advanced warning, more time to get the plane on the ground to see if you have anything serious happening, is probably going to help," Dr. Oster says. The price tag for installing the smoke alarms is high - it's not like going to your local hardware story to buy a fire detector for your home, he says. Still, Oster adds, the benefits should outweigh the costs.