The small room suggests a torture chamber, with a flame thrower resting on a low stand aimed at a straight-backed chair of naked metal. In fact, it is for torture--of seat cushions--in a process intended to save lives in burning airplanes.
In a building behind its Burbank headquarters, the Weber Aircraft division of Kidde Inc. tests seat cushions to help U.S. airlines comply with a recent Federal Aviation Administration regulation that they add a layer of fire-retardant fabric inside their seats by 1987.
Punishing cushions with an 1,800-degree flame is just the beginning of fire-safety testing at Weber. The nation's largest supplier of aircraft cabin equipment is preparing for a wave of fire-safety regulations that will alter the way it makes its products, and bring it additional profit.
The cushion rule is an example of how government can create a commercial market through regulation. The regulation is expected to cost the airlines $40 million to $80 million, and Weber officials expect to receive 40% of that.
Healthy Boost Expected
The trade promises to give a healthy boost to Weber, a company that is working hard to come back from rough times experienced by everyone who helps build airplanes.
In 1983, Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers dived into one of their worst slumps ever and Weber registered its poorest performance since 1976, with sales of $85 million. In 1984, the company had sales of $100 million. Projected sales for 1985 are $112 million, Weber executives say.
Last year, the division took the biggest order for airplane galleys in its 39-year history when American Airlines replaced cooking facilities in 127 planes. Such galley refitting accounts for 60% of Weber's business with the commercial airlines.
But these days, the cushions are the cause of unprecedented demand at Weber. "We've never seen volume like this," said Williams, noting that the company has delivered 2,000 new cushions since the regulation took effect in November.
18% Die in Crash Fires
The regulation was prompted by some statistics: Of the 3,000 deaths in the 90 major airplane accidents in this country since 1969, slightly more than 12% of the victims were killed by the impact of a crash. But another 18%, 419 deaths, resulted from fire that erupted after a crash, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Regulation has been talked about for years--far too many years without results, some consumer advocates say. A 1983 Air Canada fire that took 23 lives was the immediate inspiration for the regulatory action, or at least speeded it up, industry observers say.
Airlines have three years to comply with the seat-cushion rule from the time it took effect. In addition, the FAA on April 16 proposed a broader set of fire-safety rules that would require nearly every furnishing and structure inside commercial aircraft to be fire-resistant.
Although the seat-cushion rule requires the replacement of equipment now in use, the proposed broader rules would apply only to new equipment. Nevertheless, Weber President Earl Williams said: "It will have a significant effect in the way we do business. It will affect how we design. It will affect how we manufacture things."
Less Hazardous Resins
For example, the guidelines proposed in April would change how Weber makes walls for galleys and bathrooms. Weber would fill the walls' cores with metal instead of synthetic fibers. It would bond fiberglass sections with resins that produce less toxic gas in a fire than the ones now used.
Williams said the changes will mean different production methods, but no additions to the division's work force of 2,000--1,015 in Burbank, the rest at a facility in Gainesville, Tex.
The seat regulation, meanwhile, already has spawned a mini-industry of companies making "fire-blocking" fabrics that airlines can select to bring the 400,000 seats in U.S. planes up to the new standard: That no more than 10% of a cushion, measured by weight, burn in two minutes under a 1,800-degree flame.
So Weber places sample cushions on the bare metal chair and turns on the flame thrower. The whole test, including cooling and weighing, takes seven minutes.
Up to $200 Per Seat
The airlines will pay an estimated $100 to $200 for the remodeling of each seat, including the bottom cushion and backrest. How much the broader regulations could cost the airline industry is hard to estimate at this point, said Greg Glenn, Weber's sales administrator.
The industry that makes aircraft seats is largely unknown to the people who sit on them. "Ask the man on the street who makes the seats in an airplane and he'll say, 'the company that made the airplane,' " Williams said.