Hush Job

Special "hush kits" make airplanes quieter. Do they also make them more dangerous?

The airlines, meanwhile, have taken their own steps to deal with potential problems with the ABS hush kit. John Williams, director of material management and component shops for Northwest Airlines in Atlanta, called a meeting of air carriers on September 24, 1996, to "discuss DC-9 hush-kit issues." Williams's invitation letter indicates that the meeting was to be held at TWA's Kansas City facility and that the participants were to include representatives of several carriers, including TWA and US Airways. Apparently, the FAA was not invited. Williams did not return repeated calls from the Scene.

But other airline officials who attended the meeting say there was lengthy discussion of the problems with the ABS hush kit, including the fact that it simply did not fit correctly. According to aviation-industry sources, the FAA was not invited because the airline officials did not want to alert the federal agency to the problems.

One reason the airlines would prefer to keep the problem secret may be money. An airline loses an estimated $19,000-$21,000 a day for every DC-9 that's taken out of service, according to the Canaan Group, an aviation consulting firm based in Park City, Utah. If the planes were to be grounded by the FAA to fix or replace the hush kits, the airlines would almost certainly forgo significant revenue.

Cory Rasmussen

For Northwest, the economic stakes are particularly high. Installing hush kits allows the company to extend the life of its large fleet of older DC-9s into the next century. According to the airline's SEC report, "Although the DC-9 and DC-10 average aircraft age exceeds 20 years, these aircraft have considerable remaining technological life. The Company estimates these aircraft could fly on average approximately 16 years beyond 1996."

Questions about the hush kits should only be taken seriously, of course, if Friedman's report turns out to be accurate and fair, and if his own credibility is not challenged. It is worth noting that Friedman has a potential conflict of interest in connection with the hush-kit issue. His employer, Airweld Inc., already has a contract to overhaul and repair certain DC-9 parts for the U.S. military--the very same parts of the engine to which the ABS hush kit is attached. Though Airweld has no history of making hush kits, if ABS were knocked out of the hush-kit business, Airweld and dozens of other aviation firms might look into entering the market. Still, ABS was fully aware that Friedman worked for Airweld before he was tapped to do the audit report.

"Even if half of what Friedman says is true," warns Breckel, "you've still got a serious problem." Thomas Cruse, a professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University and an expert in large-aircraft engine structures says Friedman's technical knowledge "appears first-rate." While Cruse cautions that he would need more technical information to make a final determination on the DC-9's safety, he says the FAA can't be "confident" at this point that there are no safety concerns.

Frisbee, for his part, isn't willing to wait. According to Frisbee, "Friedman did a good audit. If [the FAA's Devany] says there's no problem, then I'd like to tell him to put his wife and kids on one of those planes. Then wait and see what happens."

Willy Stern, a former staff writer at Business Week and Forbes, has broken numerous stories in the national media about the aviation industry. City Pages News Intern James Bryant MacTavish contributed to this article.

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