On eve of Flight 800 anniversary, new fuel tank rule unveiled
BY BILL BLEYER
9:25 AM EDT, July 16, 2008
One day before the 12th anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800 off
Long Island, the federal government Wednesday announced a new rule it
said would eliminate the risk of exploding fuel tanks on jumbo jets.
The rule, which will be in effect as early as next week, requires that
inert gas be injected into empty center fuel tanks to prevent the
remaining vapor from exploding.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined that vapor in the
center tank of Flight 800 had been ignited by exposed wiring, blowing
the plane apart in t he air south of Mastic Beach, killing all 230
people on board as the jumbo jet headed for Paris.
Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said manufacturers will have two
years to install the devices on new jets. The government is giving
airlines nine years to add the devices to 2,730 Airbus and Boeing large
jets built since 1991 that are still flying.
"Today we are raising the bar on aviation safety," NTSB chairman Mark
Rosenker said. "We believe this will save lives."
The announcement was made at an Ashburn, Va., facility that contains the
partially reconstructed Boeing 747 destroyed in the explosion shortly
after takeoff from Kennedy Airport on July 17, 1996. Peters pointed out
that wreckage has been reassembled as a teaching tool and the facility
is dedicated to the crash victims and their families.
"The new rule is designed to prevent the risk of catastrophic
explosion," Peters said, adding it is "a known risk on large passenger
planes." She said three fatal accidents involving center fuel tanks have
occurred in the last 18 years.
Families of crash victims have pushed for the change and some of them
have been critical of the Federal Aviation Administration for taking too
long to remove the flammability risk.
"I'm certainly glad that it has become a rule," said James Hurd of
Severn, Md., who lost his son Jamie in the accident.
"On the other side, I'm disappointed it took so look to do it," said
Hurd, who serves as vice president and director=2 0of the Families of
TWA Flight 800 Association and was a member of the FAA committee that
developed safety upgrades. "I realize the bureaucracy needs to go
through its process. But I feel it should have been done within five to
Acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgill said that as soon as the NTSB
identified the fuel tank as the likely cause of the Flight 800
explosion, "we began working on a solution so no other family would have
to be standing on a beach." He was referring to the families of Flight
800 passengers and crew who gathered at Smith Point County Park near the
site of the crash 12 years ago and every anniversary since.
Sturgill said the FAA move quickly to make initial changes, issuing more
than 150 directives on improving the wiring to reduce the ignition risk.
"But we still had the flammability issue" until Wednesday, he said.
Peters said the FAA has already taken steps to remove the threat of
explosions from exposed wiring but full safety in the air required
dealing with the explosive vapors in empty tanks as well. She said the
FAA in 2002, with help from the industry, had developed a device for
making the gas tanks inert by injecting nonflammable gases such as
She noted Boeing, the manufacturer of the jet designated as TWA Flight
800, developed its own system and began installing it several years ago
on new planes.
"I recognize that this is a very critical time for commercial aviation"
with soaring fuel prices crea ting upheaval in the industry, Peters
said. But she said the industry could not afford to have another crash
caused by a fuel tank.
Peters said the cost of installing the new devices would range from
$92,000 to $311,000 per aircraft, depending on its size. She said this
cost represented as little as one-tenth of one percent of the cost of a
The American aircraft that will be required to be retrofitted include
approximately 2,730 aircraft. They are 900 Airbus A320s and 50 A330s as
well as 965 Boeing 737s, 60 Boeing 747s, 475 Boeing 757s, 150 Boeing
767s and 130 Boeing 777s all built since 1991.
In 2005, the FAA proposed a plan to retrofit more than 3,000 jetliners
with a fuel tank safety device. But airlines balked at the idea, citing
the massive cost of the retrofit.
Fuel tank explosions have been linked to the destruction of four
jetliners -- all Boeing aircraft -- since 1989. Among them were an
Avianca 727 in 1989; a Philippine Airways 737 in 1990; and a Thai
Airways International 737 in 2001.
In a news release, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised Wednesday's
"This plan will go a long way toward preventing another terrible tragedy
like TWA Flight 800 from ever happening again," Schumer said. "But the
proof in the pudding is in the eating, and the administration now must
provide the resources to ensure these improvements are made as quickly
as possible. Air travelers shouldn't have to wait another decade to fly
Staff writer John Valenti contributed to this story.
Evidence of a Missile
Flight 800 Database
Bomb -------- 4%
Fuel Tank --- 14%
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