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Sweeping Rule Change From FAA

airline safety graphic
AP
The Federal Aviation Administration Monday proposed a sweeping new rule aimed at reducing the chance of another fuel tank explosion like the one that brought down TWA Flight 800 nine years ago. In that crash, 230 people died when an electrical spark touched off explosive vapors in the center fuel tank of the plane, a Boeing 747.

Under the proposed rule, most large passenger jets flying in the United States would have to be equipped with some kind of venting or so-called "inerting system" designed to prevent the buildup of dangerous vapors inside their tanks, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr.

More than 3,200 existing planes, including the widely used Boeing 737 and the Airbus A-320, will be affected by the rule. In addition, all new planes will also have to be outfitted with vapor-reduction equipment.

Since the crash of TWA 800, the FAA and airplane manufacturers have focused primarily on reducing ignition sources. The idea being that eliminating sparks greatly reduces the chance of an explosion.

"Safer fuel tanks on aircraft will help prevent the possibility of future explosions and the tragic loss of lives," U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said in a statement.

Now the FAA is tackling the more difficult issue of eliminating vapors. It's a hard and expensive problem to solve. It's expected to cost more than $800 million and take more than a decade to equip all of the planes affected by the new proposed rule, Orr reports.

"This proposed rule is the next step to close the book on fuel tank explosions," said FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey. "We're proposing to increase the level of aircraft safety by reducing the potentially explosive ingredient of flammable fuel vapors."

The FAA's proposal would apply to new large airplane designs. In addition, since the FAA would require a retrofit of more than 3,200 Airbus and Boeing aircraft with center wing fuel tanks over seven years, Boeing 737, Boeing 747, and Airbus A320 models would be retrofitted first. The preliminary estimate for the total cost for the U.S. fleet is approximately $808 million over 49 years, including $313 million for retrofitting the existing fleet.

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