Associated Retired Aviation Professionals

Monday May 14 6:13 PM ET

Agency Head Wants More Tank Rules 

By JONATHAN D. SALANT, Associated Press Writer 

WASHINGTON (AP) - New rules designed to prevent a repeat of the explosion aboard TWA Flight 800 appear to fall short of what's needed, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board (news - web sites) says.

While the Federal Aviation Administration (news - web sites) issued new rules to protect fuel tanks from possible ignition sources, the agency was silent on ordering airlines to reduce the amount of air in the fuel tanks and therefore, the flammability of the fuel-air mixture, acting NTSB (news - web sites) Chairwoman Carol Carmody said.

``The preliminary view is it may not go far enough,'' Carmody said in an interview Monday. ``It still doesn't address the flammable mixture in fuel tanks. We think it needs a two-pronged approach.''

A joint airline industry-FAA task force is looking at whether to recommend that airlines pump nitrogen gas into the tanks. FAA spokesman Alison Duquette said the agency is waiting for the task force's report before moving forward.

Carmody, sworn in last year to a five-year term on the board, became acting chairwoman in January and will direct the agency until President Bush (news - web sites) nominates a new chairman.

``It's wonderful to be in charge,'' she said, ``but I try not to think about how long. I know it's not permanent. I'm sure the White House will nominate somebody good.''

Carmody said she was concerned with the growing number of airplanes, vehicles and people who are on runways when they're not supposed to be.

In 2000, there were 431 runway incursions, compared with 321 in 1999. Incidents this year are running ahead of last year's pace, with 130 incursions during the first four months of 2001, compared with 118 during the same period in 2000.

``Every day, we keep hearing about a new runway incursion,'' she said. ``As long as there are these kinds of numbers, it makes the possibility of a catastrophe more likely.''

The safety of fuel tanks is another of the agency's top priorities. New FAA rules order manufacturers to inspect tank designs and then develop regular tank inspection and maintenance programs. Airlines also must develop such programs for their fleets.

In addition, new airplanes must be designed to reduce the chances that fuel vapors in the tanks will ignite, causing an explosion.

Investigators blamed a fuel tank fire for the crash of TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 that went down on July 17, 1996, shortly after taking off from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York en route to Paris. All 230 people aboard were killed.

The NTSB said a flammable fuel-air mixture in the tank probably was ignited by an electrical short circuit, but the plane's design contributed to the blast by putting heat sources under the tank.

Following the crash, the NTSB recommended steps more than four years ago to reduce the risk of fire from exploding airplane fuel tanks. The suggestions included installing insulation between the fuel tanks and heat-generating equipment, and pumping in gases that don't ignite in order to reduce the amount of air in a fuel tank.

In March,a Thai Airways Boeing 737 exploded on the tarmac in Bangkok, Thailand, killing one crew member and injuring seven others. The NTSB said the center fuel tank of the Thai plane, located near air conditioning packs that had been running nonstop, exploded first. The right tank exploded 18 minutes later.

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