- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The Federal Aviation Administration will propose requiring the nation’s airlines to install safety devices to prevent the kind of fuel-tank explosion that destroyed TWA Flight 800 eight years ago.

“Our people have really brought us to a breakthrough on virtually eliminating fuel-tank explosions on aircraft like the one that brought down TWA 800,” FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey said yesterday.

TWA Flight 800 exploded over New York’s Long Island on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 persons aboard.

The airplane’s air-conditioning system expelled hot air near the fuel tanks on the underbelly of the airplane while it sat on the tarmac on a hot day. The heat, plus a spark from an electrical short, ignited the fuel tanks, blowing the airplane apart as it ascended after takeoff, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigators.

New safety devices developed by FAA engineers reduce flammable vapors in fuel tanks. They would be required on new and existing commercial jets with fuel tanks that could overheat.

Retrofitting the fuel tanks on 3,800 existing passenger jets would cost $600 million to $700 million, the FAA said. The cost would vary between $140,000 and $220,000 per airplane, depending on the size and model.

Mrs. Blakey was uncertain whether airlines or the government would pay the retrofitting costs.

Officials from the Air Transport Association, the trade organization for major airlines, said they needed more time to review the FAA’s proposal.

American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner said the airline will wait for more information from the FAA before responding.

“We will, of course, comply with all FAA regulations,” he added.

American Airlines would need to retrofit 369 of its airplanes under the proposal.

One industry official, who asked not to be identified, said the real price of retrofitting would be closer to $1 billion. He also questioned the effectiveness of the technology.

“This technology has not been tested in real commercial aircraft yet,” he said.

The FAA will seek industry input on its plan later this year before making a final decision.

Its new system, called a “fuel-tank inerting” device, replaces flammable oxygen in the fuel tanks with nonflammable nitrogen. It uses a filter to remove oxygen from the air but allows nitrogen to pass into the fuel tanks.

The FAA did not require the safety systems on fuel tanks sooner because earlier technologies were too expensive, bulky or impractical, Mrs. Blakey said.

Manufacturers also would be required to install the systems on any new passenger jets susceptible to explosion

All of the airplanes that must be retrofitted are made by Boeing Co. and Airbus, the European airplane manufacturer. They include some of the most widely used jets, such as Boeing 737s, Boeing 747s and Airbus A320s.

Airplanes with fuel-tank designs that create little risk of an explosion would not need the modifications.

The FAA’s new technology is designed to prevent explosions inside the fuel tanks. It would do nothing to prevent the kind of explosion and fire caused by suicide hijackers, such as the ones who crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

“If you ram a fully loaded plane into a building, you’re going to have an explosion, regardless of what kind of systems you have on board,” Mrs. Blakey said.

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