Airlines scrutinize planes' laptop outlets

Saturday, July 1st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DALLAS – Concerned about the fire safety of outlets for laptop computers on planes, United Airlines has disconnected some of the ports and American Airlines is inspecting its entire fleet after wiring in one outlet overheated.

In mid-May, wiring from a power outlet overheated on an American Airbus A300 leaving London for Boston, causing a burning smell in the cabin. The captain was forced to land the flight in Ireland.

Mechanics discovered that wiring had rubbed against a metal seat part, causing a small hole in the wiring, which led the insulation to overheat, airline spokesman John Hotard said.

After the incident, which was first reported in The Wall Street Journal, the airline began inspecting wiring on its entire 700-plane fleet. The checks will be finished in July, Mr. Hotard said.

United's decision to disconnect power outlets in 24 of its Boeing 777s was actually unrelated.

The outlets were installed by an outside contractor – which United declined to identify – that placed the outlet wires closer to backup power wiring than the quarter-inch separation recommended by Boeing, a United spokesman said. That could cause short-circuits.

Rather than ground the planes, United decided to disconnect the power. Repairs will be made from November through January, said spokesman Joe Hopkins said. He said none of the planes experienced any problems similar to the aborted American flight.

Despite the setbacks, both United and American and several other carriers are going ahead with plans to increase the number of outlet-equipped planes in their fleets.

Most laptop batteries run out of power after about two hours, and business travelers prize the outlets.

"We've had no problems with our power ports. They are very popular and demand continues to grow," said Dave Castelveter, a spokesman for US Airways, which has outlets on 55 of its 404 planes and expects the number to rise to 88 by the end of the year.