FAA Slow To Require Fuel Tank Safety Gear

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 7, 2005

It looked like a simple plastic tube, about a yard long.

Holding it up at a news conference last year, FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey announced that the agency would soon require all airlines and manufacturers to install the device inside aircraft fuel tanks to reduce the chances of a catastrophic explosion.

The tube, which reduces flammable vapors, would "virtually eliminate the possibility of fuel tank explosions," like the one that brought down TWA Flight 800 in 1996, killing all 230 on board shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport, Blakey said. "It would be irresponsible not to move forward with breakthroughs such as this."

Seventeen months later, the FAA has not started its formal process of requiring the safety device to be installed on all major aircraft, prompting concern among safety experts and investigators.

Daniel D. Campbell, managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the FAA has not explained the reasons for the delay. The board, which investigates accidents and provides recommendations but has no authority to see them through, has long placed the device on its "most wanted" safety list and rated the FAA's response as "unacceptable."

In addressing flammability of fuel tanks, "we're no different today than we were in '96," Campbell said. "That is frustrating."

The device replaces oxygen in the fuel tank with inert gases, such as nitrogen, thereby reducing the presence of flammable vapors. Fuel tank explosions occur when flammable vapors mix, often when the tanks are hot, and exposed to an ignition source, such as a spark. The FAA already has issued more than 60 orders to carriers and manufacturers to reduce ignition sources such as exposed wiring.

U.S. airlines have lobbied the FAA to delay implementation, arguing that they've already addressed the problem, and they question whether the devices, estimated to cost $140,000 to $220,000 per aircraft, are necessary. European manufacturer Airbus SAS has said its fuel tanks are already designed to reduce flammability. It has argued to European aviation officials that its new A380 aircraft -- a 555-seat double-decker -- should be exempt from the requirements because of its unique design.

FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette declined to comment on the lobbying but said the proposed rule "has been drafted and is getting final clearance." Boeing Co. and Airbus "have known this is coming and they've been trying to design [their new planes] to comply with our rule," Duquette said.

Boeing said it plans to begin installing the fuel tank devices on some new aircraft beginning in 2006, including the 787 Dreamliner when it's delivered in 2008, a spokeswoman said.

Airbus spokeswoman Mary Anne Greczyn said the company is working with the FAA and NTSB. "Should the FAA propose any additional rulemaking on the matter, we will work with them right up to certification of the A380," she said.

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