TASK force rejects nonflammable gas in fuel tanks as too costly

Wednesday, August 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Adding nonflammable gases to airline fuel tanks would be too costly, a government task force says, even though the National Transportation Safety Board says such a step could avoid the kind of explosion blamed for the loss of TWA Flight 800.

A Federal Aviation Administration advisory committee on Wednesday was to hear the joint industry-agency task force explain that pumping in nitrogen gas to reduce the amount of air in the tanks would be too costly, said Paul Hudson, head of an aviation consumer group and a member of the advisory panel. The task force recommends continuing to study the issue, Hudson said. A second person familiar with the recommendations confirmed Hudson's account.

FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said the task force report will be one of several sources of information the agency will study before deciding whether to require airlines to pump nonflammable gases into their fuel tanks.

Hudson said the task force believes that recent FAA actions will reduce the risk of an explosion, eliminating the need for any further costly steps.

The FAA in May ordered airlines to inspect the designs of airplane fuel tanks and develop regular tank inspection and maintenance programs. Manufacturers were told to design new planes to reduce the chances that fuel vapors in the tanks will ignite. Earlier, the FAA ordered airlines to shut off fuel pumps on Boeing 737s when there is a low level of fuel remaining in the center tank.

But Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, said there is no evidence that the new FAA rules will be sufficient.

``That, in our view, is an untested and unwarranted assumption,'' said Hudson, whose group is affiliated with consumer advocate Ralph Nader. ``In other words, this is a guess.''

Acting NTSB Chairwoman Carol Carmody told The Associated Press in May that the FAA rules did not appear to go far enough. ``It still doesn't address the flammable mixture in fuel tanks,'' she said at the time. ``We think it needs a two-pronged approach.''

The NTSB's recommendation to pump nonflammable gas into fuel tanks to reduce the amount of air in the tanks and reduce the chances of an explosion is one of the agency's most wanted safety improvements.

NTSB investigators blamed a fuel tank fire 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 en route to Paris. All 230 people aboard were killed.

In March, a Thai Airways Boeing 737 exploded on the tarmac in Bangkok, Thailand, killing one crew member and injuring seven others. The NTSB said the center fuel tank of the Thai plane, located near air conditioning units that had been running nonstop, exploded first. The right tank exploded 18 minutes later.