- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2008

ASHBURN, Va. | A device to prevent airplane fuel tanks from exploding must be installed on certain passenger jets and cargo planes, federal officials said Wednesday, 12 years after such an explosion destroyed TWA Flight 800, killing all 230 people aboard.

The new safety requirement, announced by Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters, applies to new passenger and cargo planes that have center wing fuel tanks like TWA 800, a Boeing 747, which exploded over the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island on July 17, 1996, after takeoff from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The rule also requires airlines to retrofit 2,730 existing Airbus and Boeing passenger planes over the next nine years with center wing fuel tanks with the changes. The retrofit schedule is based on the normal aircraft maintenance schedule.

Manufacturers have two years in which to comply with the rule, although Boeing already is making some new planes with the changes.

“We believe this will save lives,” said National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Mark Rosenker, who joined Ms. Peters at a press conference at the safety board’s training facility here, where TWA Flight 800 has been partially reconstructed from pieces of the aircraft retrieved from the ocean. “This is the big one for us as it relates to important solutions for fuel tank safety.”

The change brings to a close a long and troubled chapter in federal aviation safety. The NTSB identified the cause of the explosion - the ignition of oxygen in a partially empty fuel tank that had been sitting for hours in the sun before takeoff - not long after the accident.

But the FBI initially thought the explosion was the result of a bomb, and it was unclear for a time which agency - the FBI or the NTSB - was in charge of the investigation.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed a rule to prevent future explosions in 2005, but the aviation industry balked, saying the cost was too high.

The final rule requires aircraft manufacturers and passenger airlines to install devices that replace oxygen, which is highly explosive, with inert nitrogen in fuel tanks as they empty.

“The airlines will, of course, comply with the rule,” said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association of America.

Matt Ziemkiewicz of Rutherford, N.J., whose sister was a flight attendant aboard TWA Flight 800, said he was “disappointed this didn’t happen sooner … We knew this was a preventable accident before Flight 800.”

However, Mr. Ziemkiewicz, who has led victims’ families in seeking safety changes, said he was satisfied the new rule is “reasonable and realistic.”

The cost of installing the new technology would range from $92,000 to $311,000 per aircraft, depending upon its size, Ms. Peters said. She said the cost could be as little as one-tenth of 1 percent of the cost of a new aircraft.

FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell estimated the cost to the industry overall at about $1 billion.

“I recognize that this is a challenging time for commercial aviation,” Ms. Peters said. “But there is no doubt that another crash like TWA 800 would pose a far greater challenge.”

The rule doesn’t require that existing cargo planes be retrofitted because of the cost, Ms. Peters said.

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