Coffee spills in the cockpit can be dangerous. The solution is some plastic, for now

Posted September 30, 2020 5:42 p.m. EDT

— It's a legend immortalized in the 1964 flick "Fate is the Hunter": An airline pilot is enjoying a coffee and accidentally spills the piping-hot liquid on the cockpit's crucial electronic components. It's not just Hollywood, however. Years of public documents show that spills can have terrifying — if non-fatal — consequences in the air.

In the film, the spillage led to a fiery crash. In real life, no such fumble has been linked to death — but it has forced pilots to divert flights for emergency landings. In two cases over the past year, beverages spilled in the cockpit of an Airbus A350 aircraft have caused the shutdown of one of the aircraft's engines, which pilots were then unable to restart.

In January 2011, a Boeing 777 made an emergency landing in Canada after a spilled coffee triggered a false hijack warning. In February 2019, an Airbus A330 was grounded after a pilot's radio was taken offline by a spilled beverage, and local news outlets reported the fried electronics caused a plume of smoke severe enough to hospitalize a few people on the aircraft for smoke inhalation.

But the two recent A350 incidents that caused engine shutdowns are perhaps the most extreme examples of what has long been parodied and feared by those who pilot aircraft and ride in their cabins.

It prompted European regulators to warn earlier this year that wayward liquids could have caused both of the A350's engines to fail, "possibly resulting in a forced landing with consequent damage to the aeroplane and injury to occupants." The European Union Aviation Safety Agency, or EASA, temporarily barred A350 pilots from having beverages near the cockpit's control panel and required Airbus to investigate and propose a fix for the issue.

Airbus unveiled a stopgap solution over the summer: The company designed a waterproof slipcover that should be fitted over the center console, shielding the electronic components during flight. Though, it would have to be removed during "critical flight phases," such as take off and landing, according to the EASA.

The agency is also proposing a new order that would require Airbus to replace engine control panels with new, liquid-resistant panels on all A350 aircraft by the end of May 2021, an agency spokesperson told CNN Business earlier this month.

"While it is not common for pilots to spill liquids in the cockpit, it is recognised that such spillages do happen and so aircraft cockpits are designed to be liquid resistant," the EASA spokesperson said via email. "However cockpits cannot be completely liquid proof, and spillages when they happen often cause unexpected systems failures."

In a separate statement, Airbus said only that these "incidents have been investigated, there is a fix, customers are informed, and implementation is underway."

Coffee spills have not been linked to more severe issues, such as the software glitches on Boeing 737 aircraft that caused two crashes that took the lives of 346 people. (Boeing is still awaiting government approval to fly the aircraft again after it was grounded worldwide in March 2019.)

But it's also unclear exactly how often and how threatening issues linked to spilled beverages in aircraft cockpits can be. The US Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement to CNN Business that it "does not maintain a separate database that tracks coffee spills on aircraft control panels," but the agency also said that aircraft manufacturers already design cockpit electronics to be as spill-resistant as possible.

Airbus did not respond to further inquiry, and Boeing declined to comment. Aircraft safety experts, including the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation, also declined to comment for this story.

Still, some safety experts have suggested the decades-old problem of spilled beverages could be tempered with somewhat straightforward solutions. Sandy Murdock, a legal counsel for JDA Aviation, which works as a go-between for aircraft manufacturers and regulators, said in an April blog post that the A350 incidents might have been avoided if pilots had a better cupholders or just access to spill-proof coffee mugs.

Murdock also expressed opposition to the idea that pilots shouldn't be allowed to handle drinks around electronic components. After all, he wrote, sleep-deprived pilots often need a caffeine kick to help them stay alert in the air.

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