Recalling the TWA Flight 800 Disaster
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Today in New York, a memorial is being held for the people who died aboard TWA Flight 800 ten years ago.
The plane took off from Kennedy Airport on its way to Paris and exploded off the coast of Long Island minutes later; all 230 people onboard were killed. After an exhaustive investigation, it was found that the plane's fuel tank exploded because wiring sparked. As a result, airlines made significant wiring and inspection changes.
NPR's Nancy Solomon reports that there was another safety recommendation that came out of the investigation, and it has gone largely unheeded.
NANCY SOLOMON reporting:
The National Transportation Safety Board has a most-wanted list and at the top is a regulation that all American airliners install a kit that reduces the flammability of fuel tanks.
Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the federal agency, says ten years is too long to have waited for the change even though there have been no more mid air explosions.
Mr. MARK ROSENKER (Acting Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board): There is no doubt about that these are rare occurrences, but I certainly don't want to be on an aircraft, as rare as it might be, that potentially could explode in mid air.
SOLOMON: Rosenker won't assign blame for the delay, but his predecessor at the NTSB, Jim Hall, oversaw the investigation and now, working outside government, is more blunt.
Mr. JIM HALL (Former Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board): It's essentially corporate politics exercised through influence in Washington on safety changes that some feel in the corporate arena, you know, there aren't enough lives lost, there isn't a large enough risk to justify the expense.
Mr. JOHN HICKEY (Director of Aircraft Certification, FAA): I don't agree that that's the case at all.
SOLOMON: John Hickey is the director of FAA aircraft certification.
Mr. HICKEY: The FAA has been out in front on fuel tank safety. We've been very aggressive for ten years, and I think you need to just simply look at the existing safety record. It is far safer today than it was ten years ago.
SOLOMON: Excluding the terrorist attacks on September 11, there has only been one American commercial airline crash since January 2001. The chance of dying in an American commercial plane is much lower than in any other form of transportation, including one's own two feet.
Basil Barimo, director of safety operations for the airline industry trade association, says the airlines spend billions on safer technology, they just don't believe new fuel tank kits are a priority.
Mr. BASIL BARIMO (Vice President of Operations and Safety, Air Transport Association): We don't chase every small issue that arises. We look at where the real risk is to safety, and we go invest there. And that approach, frankly, has yielded a safety record that is impeccable.
SOLOMON: There's now a memorial for TWA 800 on New York's Fire Island, the land closest to where the plane exploded over the sea. It's a granite plaza surrounded by flowers with a wall of names and a sculpture of a sail headed out to sea.
Jim Hurd lost his son in the crash.
Mr. JIM HURD (Parent of victims aboard TWA Flight 800): The best place for me is the bench that I have for Jamie(ph), which I could show you over here. It reads: Jamie Hurd, 29, beloved son, goofy brother, loyal friend who left an indelible mark with all those he encountered. His memory lives within our hearts, yet his spirit is held in the ocean. We miss you.
SOLOMON: For ten years, Hurd has bundled up the anguish and focused in on preventing a similar catastrophe. Hurd had been an auto mechanic in Severn, Maryland. He sold his business after the crash and began lobbying full-time for safety changes.
He says the $6 billion cost quoted by the airlines comes down to a very small price per passenger on each flight.
Mr. HURD: If it cost 12 cents more every time we got on a plane to make it safer, wouldn't you do that?
I was alerted to the fact because my son got killed, but I still think it's - I feel it's something worth spending money on.
SOLOMON: Hurd does have something to show for his efforts. Boeing is installing the fuel tank kits on new aircraft. But until all planes have safer fuel tanks, he plans to keep lobbying the FAA, Congress, airline executives, and anyone who will listen.
Nancy Solomon, NPR News, New York.