ASHBURN, Va. – A device to prevent airplane fuel tanks from exploding must be installed on certain passenger jets and cargo planes, federal officials said Wednesday, 12 years after such an explosion destroyed TWA Flight 800, killing all 230 people aboard.
The new safety requirement, announced by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, applies to new passenger and cargo planes that have center fuel tanks like TWA 800, a Boeing 747, which exploded over the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island on July 17, 1996, after takeoff from New York's Kennedy Airport.
The rule also requires airlines to retrofit 2,730 existing Airbus and Boeing passenger planes built since 1991 with center wing fuel tanks with the changes over the next nine years. The retrofit schedule is based on the normal aircraft maintenance schedule.
Manufacturers have two years in which to comply with the rule, although Boeing is already making some new planes with the changes.
"We believe this will save lives," said National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker, who joined Peters at a news conference at the safety board's training facility here, where TWA Flight 800's fuselage has been partially reconstructed from pieces retrieved from the ocean. "This is the big one for us as it relates to important solutions for fuel tank safety."
The change brings to a close a long and troubled chapter in federal aviation safety. The National Transportation Safety Board identified the cause of the explosion — the ignition of oxygen in a partially empty fuel tank that had been sitting for hours in the sun before takeoff — not long after the accident. But the FBI initially thought the explosion was the result of a bomb and it was unclear for a time which agency — the FBI or the NTSB — was in charge of the investigation.
The Federal Aviation Administration proposed a rule to prevent future explosions in 2005, but the aviation industry balked, saying the cost was too high.
The final rule requires aircraft manufacturers and passenger airlines to install devices that replace oxygen, which is highly explosive, with inert nitrogen in fuel tanks as they empty.
"The airlines will, of course, comply with the rule," said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association of America.
Matt Ziemkiewicz of Rutherford, New Jersey, whose sister was a flight attendant aboard TWA Flight 800, said he was "disappointed this didn't happen sooner ... We knew this was a preventable accident before Flight 800."
However, Ziemkiewicz, who has led victims' families in seeking safety changes, said he was satisfied the new rule is "reasonable and realistic."
The cost of installing the new technology would range from $92,000 to $311,000 per aircraft, depending upon its size, Peters said. She said the cost could be as little as one-tenth of 1 percent of the cost of a new aircraft.
FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell estimated the cost to industry overall at about $1 billion.
Initial estimates a decade ago put the potential cost of protecting fuel tanks from explosion as high as $36 billion.
"I recognize that this is a challenging time for commercial aviation," Peters said. "But there is no doubt that another crash like TWA 800 would pose a far greater challenge."
The rule doesn't require that existing cargo planes be retrofitted because of the cost, said John Hickey, FAA director of aircraft certification.
"We think the overall risk (for cargo planes) in a general way is a little bit less. Of course the cost is very significant to the rule and the benefits — it's a bit challenging to quantify the benefits aside from the obvious benefit of the value of the pilots," Hickey said.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents FAA aircraft certification engineers, released a statement saying it was disappointed that the new rule applies only to center fuel tanks and not to wing fuel tanks. The controllers association and NTSB had recommended that the safety changes apply to all fuel tanks.
"The FAA missed an opportunity to greatly enhance airplane safety without significant additional cost," the statement said.