WASHINGTON — The government on Monday ordered airlines and airplane manufacturers to inspect airplane fuel tank designs to prevent fires like the one investigators blamed for the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800.
The Federal Aviation Administration ordered manufacturers to conduct the review and then develop regular tank inspection and maintenance programs. Airlines also must develop such programs for their fleets.
In addition, new airplanes must be designed to reduce the chance that fuel vapors in the tanks will ignite, causing an explosion.
"It’s time for a new approach to fuel tank safety," FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said.
The ruling did not come as a surprise to airplane makers including Boeing, many of whom had been working with closely with the FAA.
The new rules will affect about 7,000 airplanes that have at least 30 seats, impacting all major airplane manufacturers. The FAA estimates the new rules will cost the industry $165 million over 10 years.
Investigators blamed a fuel tank explosion for the crash of TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 that went down on July 17, 1996, shortly after taking off from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York bound for Paris. All 230 people aboard were killed.
The National Transportation Safety Board said a flammable fuel-air mixture in the tank probably was ignited by an electrical short circuit, but the plane’s design contributed to the blast by putting heat sources under the tank.
In April, the FAA also ordered airlines to shut off fuel pumps in the center fuel tank on Boeing 737s when there is a low level of fuel in the tank, citing ignition concerns.
Earlier this year, a Thai Airways Boeing 737 that was sitting on the tarmac in Bangkok, Thailand, exploded while the center fuel pump was running nearly on empty. The cause of the explosion, which killed one crew member and injured seven others, has not been determined.
The center fuel tank pumps also were running dry on a Philippine Airlines 737 that suffered an explosion on the ground in 1990, killing eight people. The cause of that explosion was never determined.
The FAA order follows similar guidance Boeing made earlier.
The NTSB has made several recommendations to reduce the chances of a fuel tank fire, including requiring a certain amount of fuel in the tank before turning on the pump, installing insulation between the fuel tanks and heat-generating equipment, and pumping in gases that don’t ignite in order to reduce the amount of air in a fuel tank. The NTSB has listed its fuel tank recommendations among its most-wanted safety improvements.
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