WASHINGTON - An aviation safety breakthrough by government scientists has led to affordable technology that could virtually eliminate catastrophic fuel tank explosions like the one that destroyed TWA Flight 800, Federal Aviation Administration officials said yesterday.
FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey said the agency planned to require the airline industry to install new equipment on about 3,800 Boeing and Airbus passenger jets, which constitute the bulk of the commercial fleet. The process of issuing a regulation and phasing in the fixes could take nearly 10 years to complete at a cost of $140,000 to $220,000 per plane.
The "industry simply cannot afford to not have this safety net in place," Blakey said.
The new device, which can be installed in the cargo hold, would pump nonflammable nitrogen from the air into the fuel tanks, making fumes much less likely to ignite.
TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 bound from New York to Paris, blew up off Long Island in July 1996, killing all 230 people aboard. Many suspected a terrorist attack, but the disaster was ultimately blamed on a short circuit that ignited fumes in a nearly empty fuel tank.
Boeing will begin installing its version of the device on newly built 747s late next year, a company spokeswoman said.
An Airbus spokesman said the company was evaluating the technology, but did not believe its planes had a problem.
The FAA focused on Boeing and Airbus because their planes have fuel tanks near sources of heat, such as air conditioning equipment.