A key safety system designed to prevent fuel tank explosions - like the kind that brought down TWA Flight 800 10 years ago off the coast of Long Island, killing all 230 aboard - has still not been installed on commercial airliners, officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday.
While significant safety improvements have been made to prevent similar explosions, the board's acting chairman, Mark V. Rosenker, said yesterday that the Federal Aviation Administration has dragged its feet in compelling the airlines to install the fuel tank inerting systems. The systems are designed to replace oxygen in the center fuel tanks with an inert gas, such as nitrogen, which can't cause an explosion.
Late yesterday, an association representing family members of those who died on Flight 800 called for a congressional investigation into why the systems have not been installed.
Risa Heller, a spokeswoman for Sen. Charles Schumer, said the senator would help. "They deserve answers," she said.
John Seaman, of upstate Clifton Park, who is chairman of Families of TWA Flight 800, lost his 19-year-old niece, Michele Becker. "The families tried to be patient. It's been 10 years since the loss of 230 lives. All of those folks died way too soon, and it was because of a known problem in the airlines that the NTSB has been trying to get the FAA to move on."
The NTSB is an independent oversight agency that investigates accidents on sea, air and on land. The FAA is a federal agency in charge of air safety regulations.
Rosenker said at a morning news conference that reduction of fuel tank flammability remains on the NTSB's "most wanted" list of safety improvements for commercial airliners.
The FAA defended its actions, which the airlines have been fighting.
"We are working as hard as we can," said John Hickey, the FAA's director of aircraft certification. "It was a very big rule and there were a lot of comments. Those comments have to all be addressed and analyzed. It is a costly rule and it puts the organizations in the business in a defensive mode."
Nonetheless, Rosenker said in an interview that he was frustrated. "Ten years is much too long, and this has been clearly resolvable," he said.
TWA 800, a Boeing 747, crashed on July 17, 1996, minutes after takeoff from Kennedy Airport on a flight to Paris. The NTSB determined the crash was caused by an explosion in the center wing fuel tank, resulting from ignition of the flammable fuel/oxygen mixture.
Richard Hammer of Glen Head lost his wife, Beverly, 59, and daughter, Tracy Anne, 28. "Something went dramatically wrong and potentially could happen again based upon their inaction," he said.
Plan to retrofit thousands
Last November, the federal government told airlines they needed to retrofit thousands of passenger aircraft with the inerting systems. The 152-page proposed rule issued by the FAA came after months of wrangling within the U.S. Department of Transportation, the FAA's parent agency, over the cost to the airlines - which could reach $1.6 billion.
After the rule was issued, the FAA had a public comment period, now closed. The agency has 16 months to analyze the comments, and the rule is not expected to be finalized this year. And, officials have speculated, the FAA is expected to give airlines from seven to 10 years to install the systems.
Phyre Technologies successfully tested system designed to prevent fuel tank explosions such as that on Trans World Airlines Flight 800.
Nearly nine years after a fuel tank explosion caused the fatal crash of TWA Flight 800, safety officials say little has been done to reduce the flammability of vapors in aircraft fuel tanks.
More than 1o years after the TWA Flight 800 crash, the NTSB says that fuel tanks are just as flammable.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark V. Rosenker today commended the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration for its final rule on fuel tank...