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Blazing a trail in flammability testing

Posted 23 June 2017 · Add Comment

UAE national carrier Etihad has teamed up with Swiss company Lantal Textiles to create what is believed to be the Middle East's first laboratory specialising in flammability testing of aircraft cabin fabrics and other materials. Alan Dron reports.

A straightforward supplier relationship between Etihad and the company that produces air-filled cushions for its first-class cabins has expanded into new territory, with the opening, last December, of a laboratory dealing with one of the most important safety aspects of aviation.
Etihad approached Lantal with a plan to create a laboratory for flammability certification purposes. Airline interiors have a wide range of safety parameters to meet, one of the most critical being their ability to withstand an outbreak of fire.
Fire in an aircraft’s cabin is a critical matter, as has sadly been proven by many incidents in the past. In 1985, for example, a Boeing 737-200 of British Airtours, a subsidiary of British Airways, suffered an uncontained engine failure as it accelerated for take-off at Manchester Airport in the UK.
Fire broke out after a fuel tank was ruptured and thick fumes quickly filled the cabin; of the 137 people on board, most of the 55 people who died did so from the inhalation of toxic smoke from burning seat fabrics and fuselage panels.
That incident led to a major review of cabin interiors, with all seat fabrics, ceiling and sidewall panels, required to meet new standards of fire resistance. It is this type of testing that the new Abu Dhabi laboratory carries out.
“Etihad is a major maintenance organisation, but it also has a design operation, so it is allowed to modify aircraft,” explained Heiko Nuessel, managing director of the Abu Dhabi operation and partner in the Switzerland-based parent company, as well as its executive vice-president, compliance and certification. “To do anything with an aircraft, at the end of the modification or certification process, you have to show to the authorities that the aircraft is fully airworthy again.”
If, for example, materials are glued or stitched together, it has to be demonstrated that this new combination of materials remains safe. This applies not only to obvious materials, such as cabin furnishings, but virtually everything in the aircraft’s interior that is non-metallic, such as cabin ‘monuments’ and galley structures.
Lantal is typical of many Swiss companies in that it has been in its chosen marketplace for a long time. “We’re a 131-year-old textile company,” said Nuessel.
Founded in 1886, it first became involved in the aircraft industry in 1954 when Dutch national carrier, KLM, ordered seating fabrics from it.
“We’re still weaving fabrics, carpets and draperies in Switzerland. Anything you see in cabins with a textile character, we are able to provide,” said Nuessel.
As a manufacturer to the aviation industry, one of the most regulated sectors in the world, Lantal has to guarantee that its products fulfil aviation’s tough flammability requirements.
As a result, it created its own test laboratory, which it has operated for more than 35 years. In 2008, it established an engineering department, which won authorisation to modify and certify cabin components.
Most of the new lab’s initial business stems from Etihad, but Nuessel believes that the new Abu Dhabi facility will find business beyond the emirate, especially as existing labs have heavy workloads: “The problem in Europe at the moment is that people are waiting quite a long time for their [safety] certificates. Due to the fact that we’re starting from scratch, our order books are more or less empty, so we can offer very, very short lead times – as little as 24 to 48 hours after we receive the test specimens.”
One potential source of business is the Indian sub-continent. “To my knowledge, there are only a few laboratories in Asia; in China, I know of only one and that’s a government test laboratory.”
The new lab will be spreading its marketing net as far as Australasia. Similarly, there is a complete absence of such facilities in Africa, added Nuessel.
 

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