U.S. Unveils New Rule On Airplane Fuel Tanks

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The Department of Transportation has announced new rules to increase the safety of fuel tanks on airliners. The regulations will add considerable cost and will apply to new planes as well as existing ones. The airlines have nine years to comply.


Today the federal government took a big step towards preventing catastrophic accidents in the sky. It involves changes to airplane fuel tanks. Those changes are intended to make it virtually impossible for the tanks to catch fire and explode, as NPR's Kathleen Schalch now reports.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: The new rule applies to big jets with center-wing fuel tanks, about half the total US fleet. New planes will be required to have new equipment within two years. Existing planes will need to be retrofitted.

Secretary MARY PETERS (Department of Transportation): A total of 2,730 Airbus and Boeing aircraft with center fuel tanks over a nine-year period.

SCHALCH: Transportation Secretary Mary Peters says this technology will make fuel tanks less combustible by sucking out the oxygen.

Mr. MARK ROSENKER (Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board): This is the big one for us, as it relates to an important solution to eliminate fuel tank explosions.

SCHALCH: Mark Rosenker chairs the National Transportation Safety Board, which has been pushing for the rule. The changes will be expensive, somewhere between 100,000 and $400,000 per plane. That'll cost the industry about a billion dollars over the next three decades. But Rosenker said today the rule is aimed at preventing accidents like the one that took place 12 years ago. A fuel tank exploded aboard TWA flight 800, just after it took off from New York's Kennedy Airport, headed for Paris. The crash killed all 230 people aboard.

Mr. ROSENKER: This was one of the worst aviation tragedies in our nation's history.

SCHALCH: At first, investigators suspected it was a missile or a bomb, but the NTSB found that a short circuit had ignited vapors in the center wing fuel tank. Secretary Peters said today the new rule ensures that this won't happen again.

Sec. PETERS: The full answer, the full safety answer lies in not just trying to remove the wires that could short or spark and cause an explosion, but also with inventing a way to reduce the flammability of the tank itself.

SCHALCH: And that's what this technology will do. Without oxygen, the fuel can't burn. As for cargo planes, new ones will have to comply with the rule, but older ones won't have to be retrofitted. The rule was a long time in coming. For years, safety officials wanted it, but the industry argued that it would be too expensive. Since then, the costs have come down. Given the industry's current financial woes, Peters says she recognizes this is an added burden. But she said another accident like the crash of TWA 800 would pose a far greater challenge. The air transport association which represents the major airlines says the industry will comply. Rosenker and Peters made the announcement at the NTSB's training facility near Washington, DC, which houses the remains of TWA flight 800. Earlier, they inspected the re-assembled planes, curled and rumpled fragments now fitted together like a giant puzzle, and they said they were glad they had found a solution.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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