Political Pressure and a Prompt Proposal
Every fatal airplane accident generates extensive media attention and strong political pressures. Congressional committees have an almost limitless inclination to investigate airplane accidents. In his study of policy analysis in the FAA, Steven Rhoads notes that "it would be difficult to overestimate the seriousness with which Congress views commercial air crashes." Within two months of the accident, three separate congressional committees held hearings on the Air Canada
fire. Accused of "footdragging" and indifference bordering on callousness, the FAA soon became Congress's scapegoat for the incident. Congressman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) made the exaggerated claim that "had [Halon extinguishers] been on-board Air Canada nobody would have died." Several congressmen introduced bills to mandate the NTSB's proposals on smoke detectors and Halon fire extinguishers. Congress was unlikely to regulate the matter by statute, however, since it had neither the inclination nor the resources to address such technical questions. (In any case, as one congressman put it, "I would not want to fly in a plane designed by Congressional committee.") Instead Congress strengthened the oversight process. One committee required the FAA to file monthly progress reports on the implementation of various NTSB recommendations. The pressure to adopt new regulations, including ones concerning fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, was intense.
The FAA knew it had to respond to the Air Canada fire with a regulation and was prepared to do so quickly. In short order the agency drew on its previous experience and drafted a simple standard. First, smoke detectors would be required in airplane lavatories and galleys. No effort was made to define the technical specifications for these devices. Second, a built-in fire extinguisher would be required in the towel disposal receptacle of each lavatory. (This had been suggested by the NTSB after both the Varig and Air Canada fires.) Finally, the number of fire extinguishers required would be increased, and at least two Halon 1211 extinguishers would be required on every plane. The choice of Halon 1211, and the exclusion of Halon 1301, was apparently based on the general notice sent out after the gasoline hijackings. The increase in the number of extinguishers required was simply an incremental guess. "We took a look at the wide bodies," a rulemaking staff member stated, "and said 'we need another extinguisher for every one hundred people.'" Otherwise, to a large extent, the NTSB essentially drafted the regulation.
Objections to the proposal were meek. The American Transport Association, which represents most major airlines and is considered by many to be a powerful lobbying organization, did not oppose "the basic thrust" of the proposal, only the requirement for smoke detectors in galley areas. The few other objections to the rule were technical. Some engineers argued that the standard should permit Halon 1301 as well as Halon 1211 (the numbers denote differences in chemical structure). Others alleged that household smoke detectors would not necessarily be reliable in airplanes. The effects of vibration were cited by Underwriters
Laboratories as one of several possibly significant aspects of aviation use that might impede performance. Unusual air currents might also be important, particularly in airplane lavatories, where the air moves down and out through the toilet bowl.
These claims might have been self-serving—UL was basically advocating that the FAA require laboratory certification of smoke detectors for aviation use—but they were also well founded. Devices designed specifically to endure the rigors of the aviation environment are far more sophisticated than a standard household detector. Detectors for airplane cargo holds, produced in accordance with an FAA Technical Standards Order, cost $800 to $1,300 each. When the Regulatory Analysis Division in the FAA first analyzed the proposed rule, they used cost estimates based on these devices and arrived at a benefit-cost ratio of less than one. The critical but unanswered question is to what extent accuracy and reliability are sacrificed by allowing the basic dime store model instead of the sophisticated aviation model. Household detectors are not particularly sturdy either. Given the rigors of aviation use, they might not work in time of need. (Liability concerns of this nature prompted at least one major manufacturer to decline an airline's recent order for 1,500 detectors.) Missing batteries, a problem noted by carriers that experimented with smoke detectors, could also incapacitate the smoke detector. Petty theft would not be the only motive. Sabotage by smokers breaking what is widely thought to be one of the most ignored FAA prohibitions—against smoking in the lavatory—is another possibility.
Another possible consequence, argued an official of the British Civil Aviation Authority, is false alarms, which would "soon give rise to a loss of faith in the detection system." Household detectors are sensitive to changes in air flows, something that occurs regularly in flight but seldom at home. Smoke is also common in galley areas, partly as a by-product of food preparation. Several airlines feared that the panic caused by an activated alarm might be worse than the possibility of a fire going undetected without a smoke detector.