- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 9, 2001

Adding nonflammable gases to airline fuel tanks would be too costly, a government task force concludes, even though the National Transportation Safety Board says such a step could avoid the kind of explosion blamed for the loss of TWA Flight 800.
A Federal Aviation Administration advisory committee yesterday heard the joint industry-agency task force explain its objections to pumping in nitrogen gas to reduce the amount of air in the tanks.
"Fuel-tank inerting will take many years to implement and will have an enormous operational impact, with costs that far exceed the benefits," the task force said.
The task force did, however, recommend continuing to review the issue and called for studying alternatives in an effort to reduce the chance of an explosion.
FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said the report will be one of several sources of information the agency will study before deciding whether to require airlines to fill empty fuel-tank space with nonflammable gases.
The task force said recent FAA actions would reduce the risk of an explosion. The FAA in May ordered airplane manufacturers to inspect the designs of fuel tanks and airlines to develop improved tank-inspection and maintenance programs. Manufacturers were told to design new planes to reduce chances of igniting fuel vapors in the tanks. Earlier, the FAA ordered airlines to shut off fuel pumps on Boeing 737s when there is a low level of fuel remaining in the center tank.
But Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, said there is no evidence that the new FAA rules will be sufficient.
"That, in our view, is an untested and unwarranted assumption," said Mr. Hudson, whose group is affiliated with consumer advocate Ralph Nader. "In other words, this is a guess."
Acting NTSB Chairman Carol Carmody told the Associated Press in May that the FAA rules did not appear to go far enough. "It still doesn't address the flammable mixture in fuel tanks," she said at the time. "We think it needs a two-pronged approach."
The NTSB's recommendation to pump nonflammable gas into fuel tanks to reduce the amount of air in the tanks and reduce the chances of an explosion is one of the agency's most-wanted safety improvements.
NTSB 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 persons aboard were killed.
In March, a Thai Airways Boeing 737 exploded on the tarmac in Bangkok, killing one crew member and injuring seven others. The NTSB said the center fuel tank of the Thai plane, located near air-conditioning units that had been running nonstop, exploded first. The right tank exploded 18 minutes later.

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