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Crash anniversary renews calls for fuel-tank safety

On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, pressure is mounting for a congressional probe into why the federal government has still not mandated fuel-tank safety systems that could prevent a repeat tragedy.

The Paris-bound Boeing 747 jetliner crashed into the Atlantic minutes after takeoff from Kennedy Airport on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 people aboard.

Soon afterward, the National Transportation Safety Board called for devices to be installed on jetliners that would replace oxygen in fuel tanks with nonexplosive nitrogen. The so-called inerting systems have been on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of air safety improvements ever since.

But the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to require the systems – even though its own research shows they are 100 percent effective in preventing explosions like the one the NTSB determined had downed Flight 800.

“This is an important issue which must be resolved,” said Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., whose district includes Smith Point Park in Brookhaven, where on Monday victims’ family members plan to assemble for a memorial service, as they have every year since the crash.

Late last month, acting NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker slammed the FAA for moving “much too slowly. Ten years after the TWA accident, fuel tank inerting systems are not in place in our airliners, and flammability exposure is largely unchanged.”

In 2000, after a four-year, $38 million probe – the most expensive in aviation history – the NTSB concluded that poorly designed wiring triggered an explosion in Flight 800’s near-empty center fuel tank.

While inerting has been standard on military aircraft since the Vietnam War, the FAA did not propose rules requiring it for commercial airliners until last November. And the agency does not expect to complete its review of industry reaction to the proposal before the end of the year.

If the rule is ultimately approved, it will take at least seven years to retrofit the country’s commercial fleet, according to the FAA.

“Our children, our husbands, our wives, our loved ones died because the FAA did not act responsibly,” said John Seaman, chairman of the Families of TWA Flight 800 Association, whose niece Michelle Becker, 19, perished in the crash. “Congress needs to get to the bottom of this.”

Boeing has made a fuel tank flammability reduction system part of its new 787 Dreamliner aircraft and has begun installing inerting devices on newly built 747s. But it has not yet begun to retrofit older 747s.

The FAA says it would cost $313 million to retrofit the existing U.S. fleet.


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