Boeing to be fined $13.6M over fuel-tank safety

By Alan Levin Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration proposed to fine Boeing $13.6 million, its second-largest penalty ever, for delays in telling airlines how to prevent fuel-tank explosions on 383 aircraft.

Boeing was given a Dec. 27, 2010, deadline to submit instructions on how to add explosion-prevention devices in U.S.-registered 747 jumbo jets and 757 single-aisle planes, according to an emailed statement Friday by the Federal Aviation Administration. The Chicago-based company missed the deadline for 747s by 301 days, and was 406 days late for 757s, according to the FAA release.

“We are committed to ensuring the safety of the flying public,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in the statement. “Manufacturers must provide the necessary instructions so the airlines can comply with this important safety regulation.”

The fine is the largest proposed by the FAA since it sought $24.2 million from American Airlines in 2010 for maintenance lapses that grounded its fleet of Boeing MD-80s in 2008. Firms typically negotiate lower payments with the FAA.

The agency’s action stems from a regulation that requires airlines to install devices that blanket center fuel tanks with non-flammable nitrogen gas. The rule resulted from the explosion in a Trans World Airlines 747 off New York on July 17, 1996, that killed all 230 aboard.

The National Transportation Safety Board ruled that a spark triggered an explosion in the tank, tearing the jetliner apart. Tanks located in the fuselage between the wings are heated by nearby equipment and are explosive for a majority of time on flights, the safety board found.

Boeing officials just received word of the FAA’s proposed penalty and were reviewing it, Myles Kotay, a company spokesman, said in a phone interview.

Airbus, Boeing’s main competitor for civilian aircraft, met the deadline, according to the statement.

The fuel-tank rule requires that airlines install the devices on half their fleets by 2014 and complete the effort by 2017.

“The FAA expects that most, if not all, operators will meet both the 2014 and 2017 deadlines, even if they received service instructions later than anticipated,” the agency said.

Airlines sought a delay in installing the devices in a March 28 letter sent by the Washington-based trade group Airlines for America. The group represents large carriers such as Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

Approvals for how to install the fuel-tank devices were so far behind schedule that it would be impossible for airlines to meet the FAA’s deadlines, the group said in the letter.

The agency told the trade group in a letter today that it wouldn’t extend the final deadline. It said would accept applications for extensions from individual carriers.

While the final deadline won’t be altered, the agency may grant airlines leeway on the 2014 standard, Peggy Gilligan, FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, said in the letter.

The FAA, in the years after the TWA accident, balked at recommendations by the NTSB to require anti-explosion devices as too expensive.

The agency reversed itself in 2002 after research showed it would be easier and cheaper than previously thought to use nitrogen gas to prevent explosions. Boeing participated in the research and endorsed the agency’s rule.

The FAA has also ordered dozens of improvements to tanks and wiring on airliners since the TWA accident to reduce the risks of fires and explosions.