Exploding Airliners -- 10 Years Later

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The NTSB said Thursday that "airliner fuel tanks are as flammable today as they were 10 years ago," as the tenth anniversary of the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island looms on July 17. (The incident was not the first of its kind -- one event happened quite recently.) And while an effective and relatively inexpensive (by airliner standards) system to prevent such catastrophes has been available for a couple of years (and has even spawned an updated design), the FAA has yet to implement regulations (though it has drafted a Notice Of Proposed Rulemaking) requiring that airliners be less explosion-prone. "The longer we wait, the possibility of a catastrophic explosion remains," Mark Rosenker, NTSB Acting Chairman, said in an interview. "The objective is to eliminate these fuel tank explosions as quickly as we can." Boeing has already retrofitted two Boeing 747s and two newer Boeing 737s with a system that extracts nitrogen from engine bleed air and pumps it into the belly fuel tanks as they empty. That system can be put on any airliner for $100,000 to $300,000 per installation. And since its new 787 doesn't use bleed air, Boeing's put a tank of nitrogen on board for the purpose. The FAA says it is pushing ahead with a proposed rule that, rather than specify the hardware required, simply mandates that the empty space in center fuel tanks be rendered inert. The Air Transport Association says the cost is prohibitive and the NTSB says the rule doesn't go far enough. It wants wing tanks protected, too.