July 13, 2005

FAA pressed to act on airliner fuel tank safety

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. aviation officials should
quickly order airlines to reduce the risks of fuel tank
explosions like the one that brought down TWA Flight 800 off
the coast of New York almost nine years ago, U.S. transport
safety officials said on Wednesday.

TWA Flight 800, headed to Paris, crashed shortly after
taking off from New York's John F. Kennedy International
airport, killing all 230 people aboard the Boeing 747 jumbo
jet. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the
cause was an explosion in the center wing fuel tank.

A Thai Airways Boeing 737 in March, 2001, exploded on the
ground killing one person, and investigators attributed the
cause to flammable fuel/air mixtures in the center wing tank.

After the TWA crash, the NTSB urged the Federal Aviation
Administration to order airlines to immediately change
operating procedures to cut the chance of the tanks exploding
as well as require aircraft design changes, which would take

While the acting NTSB chairman, Mark Rosenker, said fuel
tank explosions were "rare events," he pressed the FAA to stop
dragging its feet, particularly since the agency said early in
2004 it was close to proposing design changes.

"I urge the FAA to act quickly on our urgent recommendation
to implement airline operational actions," he said in a
statement. "I would remind everyone that we are still awaiting
issuance by the FAA of a proposed rule announced 17 months ago
that would require inerting of airliner fuel tanks."

Onboard air conditioning units located beneath center fuel
tanks can heat the fuel when operated while aircraft are parked
and raise the risk of creating flammable vapor.

The NTSB suggested that airlines could cool planes on the
ground with externally supplied air, a recommendation passed on
to carriers by the FAA. However, an FAA study last year found
only about 6 percent rely exclusively on ground-based air
conditioning, according to the NTSB.

An FAA spokesman said the agency, in conjunction with the
Department of Transportation, was working to propose rules for
neutralizing fuel risks, and said Boeing Co. was already
outfitting new aircraft with flammability reduction systems.

"The ultimate solution is inerting and we have that rule in
the works and we want to get it out the door as quickly as we
can," said FAA spokesman Les Dorr. "It is better to have a
proposed rule that is correct and makes sense than to have one
that gets out the door too early."

He also noted that ground-based cooling systems were only
useful in some instances and were not available at all