Federal accident investigators and safety advocates say they are worried that the Airbus A380 double-decker jet will be exempt from new U.S. rules designed to prevent fuel tank explosions like the one that downed TWA Flight 800 in 1996.
European officials have said that they do not agree with fuel tank safety rules proposed in the United States and will not make the mammoth new plane subject to them.
U.S. and European regulators on Tuesday gave Airbus approval to fly passengers on the largest jetliner in history, but left unresolved the fuel tank issues. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration says it intends to release a final fuel tank rule next year.
As proposed, the rule would only apply to U.S.-registered aircraft. If Europeans do not adopt the rule, foreign carriers would be free to fly A380s into this country without updating the jet's fuel tanks.
The National Transportation Safety Board declined to comment Tuesday, but the agency took the unusual step of writing to European regulators in 2004 to urge fuel tank safety measures on the A380. The NTSB said that without the measures, the jumbo jet could be vulnerable to an explosion.
Safety advocates say it's a mistake to exempt the jet from the rules.
"There is no explanation other than it's a stiff arm in the face of safety," says Jim Hall, an aviation lawyer who chaired the NTSB during the TWA probe.
"It's unfortunate that an aircraft of this size and significance does not have a requirement to eliminate the flammability in the tanks," says Carol Carmody, a former NTSB board member.
Airbus argues that its planes don't need additional fuel tank safety measures because none of its tanks have ever exploded, and it says the fuel tanks on the A380 are not flammable enough to be subject to the proposed rules.
Spokesman Clay McConnell says the jet does not have a tank in the fuselage, which is what blew up on TWA 800.
"This airplane has undergone more testing and more stringent evaluation than any other commercial airplane in history, and today is a very proud day that it has been certified as ready to fly," McConnell said.
The FAA concluded that Airbus jets remain vulnerable.
Since shortly after TWA 800 crashed on July 17, 1996, killing 230 people off Long Island, the NTSB called for installation of devices that remove oxygen from fuel tanks to prevent explosions.
After years of balking, the FAA agreed in 2004. The agency said it would require the devices on tanks that were flammable.
The proposal has met intense opposition from airlines, Airbus and European officials. Boeing, meanwhile, agreed to voluntarily install the devices.
The four-engine A380 will hold about 550 passengers. It has been plagued with cost overruns and delays. The European Aviation Safety Agency notified the FAA earlier this year that only models certified after the A380 should be subject to the fuel tank improvements.
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