U.S. delaying air safety rules, NTSB says

Promised requirements designed to prevent fuel vapor blast like Flight 800

July 07, 2005|By Sylvia Adcock | Sylvia Adcock,NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON - Nine years after TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island, the National Transportation Safety Board accused the government yesterday of dragging its feet on new requirements designed to prevent another fuel tank explosion.

"We're not significantly different than we were in '96," said Dan Campbell, executive director of the NTSB, which spent four years investigating the 1996 explosion and crash of the Boeing 747, which killed 230 people.

Campbell told reporters that while the Federal Aviation Administration has made significant progress in fixing problems that could cause sparks inside a fuel tank, the agency has yet to propose a rule promised in February 2004 that would prevent the buildup of flammable vapors in the first place.

The FAA says it plans to require devices that replace some of the oxygen in fuel tanks with nitrogen, making the vapors less explosive. That retrofit - estimated to cost more than $600 million for the U.S. fleet - is being fought by airlines, sources say.

Aircraft fuel tanks - particularly the center tanks, located near sources of heat - are often filled with flammable vapors. A spark can ignite the vapors, causing an explosion that can rip apart the plane. Before Flight 800, the FAA had a policy of building in safety by trying to keep ignition sources out of the tank - but has since taken the position that the vapors must also be minimized.

In the case of Flight 800, investigators suspect that damaged wiring ignited the vapors, but that was never proved.

Campbell said the FAA has made significant progress on reducing ignition sources and praised the agency for its research on fuel flammability. But he called it "frustrating" that the rules on flammability have not yet been proposed.

In February 2004, the FAA announced that a rule requiring inerting devices on 3,800 commercial aircraft would be in place before year's end. "Our citizens, our industry and our airlines simply can't afford not to have this safety net in place," FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey said at the time.

The FAA has finished writing the proposed rule, but it is stuck at the Department of Transportation, the FAA's parent agency. A DOT report on "significant rulemaking" lists the explanation for the delay as "unanticipated impacts requiring further analysis," shorthand for taking a closer look at the costs.

The FAA has directed that new aircraft designs must minimize the flammability of fuel vapors.

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