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Plane Insulation Can Speed Fire

Fire concerns growing out of the Swissair Flight 111 crash investigation prompted the Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday to begin work on an order requiring eventual replacement of insulation aboard the entire U.S. aircraft fleet.

While investigators still are not sure what caused the Sept. 2 accident, which killed all 229 aboard, the pilots reported smoke in the cockpit minutes before their MD-11 aircraft plunged into the sea off Nova Scotia. The plane was protected against cold and noise with insulation blankets coated with Mylar.

Newly released tapes of FAA tests show that the current insulation materials used in Boeing, Airbus and Fokker planes can ignite and actually help spread flames when exposed to extreme heat or an electrical short.

So far the FAA has only recommended that the insulation be replaced, but it may eventually require the action, CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports.

The recommendation is one of the most sweeping and potentially most costly air-safety initiatives ever proposed by the FAA. It would involve spending billions of dollars to replace insulation on 12,000 jetliners around the world.

There is no evidence that the insulation played any role in the Swissair crash, but there are at the same time signs of heat, stress, and fire in the wreckage.

McDonnell Douglas, maker of the MD-11 that is now a part of Boeing, recommended that the Mylar blankets in all MD-11s be replaced. The FAA broadened the recommendation to cover all other planes made by Boeing and Airbus.

The FAA has not called for any urgent action requiring planes to be grounded. No flights should be delayed or passengers inconvenienced. Airplanes are being asked to replace the insulation during regularly scheduled maintenance procedures.

In the meantime, the FAA is working on a new test for fire retardation that could lead to the development of new standardized insulation. It will take months or even years to upgrade all the planes now in service. But some experts say the FAA is overreacting to what they see as a minimal fire risk.

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