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Planes still flying with same problem as TWA 800

Airlines resist FAA changes
TWA 800 wreckage was pieced together to help determine the cause of the explosion.


Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
Air Transportation
Air and Space Accidents

(CNN) -- Ten years after the explosion of TWA Flight 800, the very problem that led to the disaster still has not been fully fixed -- despite a warning from the Federal Aviation Administration that it is "virtually certain to occur" again without additional safeguards.

In fact, the FAA predicts that without its recommended safety changes four more TWA-type disasters are likely to happen over the next 50 years.

The FAA wants jetliners equipped with a nitrogen safety system to prevent explosions by removing oxygen from fuel tanks. The agency would require the new safety system in new planes coming off the assembly line, as well as the retrofitting of 3,800 large U.S. passenger jets. (Watch video animation of the in-flight explosion -- 1:10)

"We're looking at potentially something that could prevent in the future another explosion from ever happening in the United States fleet," John Hickey, the FAA's director of aircraft certification, told "CNN Presents" as part of an investigative documentary airing Saturday and Sunday.

The biggest opposition to the changes has come from the airlines, which have criticized the FAA for using what it says are "fatally flawed" statistical assumptions that overstate the risk of future explosions.

"Neither the FAA's safety analysis nor benefit-cost analysis justifies the proposed rule," the Air Transport Association, which represents the airlines, said in its response to the FAA this past May.

While the FAA has not yet made a final decision, Boeing, which has built nearly three-fourths of the jetliners in use around the world, told CNN it will install a nitrogen safety system on its new planes -- with or without an FAA mandate -- because it is "the right thing to do."

A spokesman for Airbus, Boeing's Europe-based competitor, said it has never had a fuel tank explosion but that it will comply if the FAA orders the additional safety measures.

TWA 800 exploded on July 17, 1996, shortly after takeoff from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on a flight bound for Paris, killing all 230 people aboard. After an exhaustive investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the Boeing 747 was the victim of a center fuel tank explosion, most likely caused by a spark in its vapor-filled center tank. (Watch an investigator's explanation of the TWA 800 disaster -- 2:10)

Numerous safety improvements have been made on fuel tanks since then, with manufacturers, the airlines and the FAA focusing on preventing sparks from reaching the tanks.

According to the NTSB, a fuel tank explosion happens on average every four and a half years. In May 1990, six years before TWA 800, a center tank exploded on a Philippine Airlines 737 shortly before take off, killing eight people. Four years and eight months after TWA 800, the center tank of a Thai Airways jet exploded on the ground, killing one person.

"If you go strictly by the average number of weeks and months between fuel tank explosions, we are overdue," said Bob Swaim, one of the NTSB's lead investigators.

'A price on my daughter's head'

In December 1996, not even six months after the TWA 800 tragedy, the NTSB strongly recommended the installation of a nitrogen safety system to reduce fuel-tank flammability across the fleet of U.S. commercial aircraft.

Similar systems had been installed on military planes as far back as the 1960s. Those systems pumped nitrogen gas into the fuel tanks to force out the oxygen. Without sufficient oxygen, even a spark cannot cause an explosion, because nitrogen does not burn.

The FAA put together two advisory boards to study such systems for commercial jets.

"You may have been able to install a system in the airplane," said Basil Barimo, a vice president for the Air Transport Association. "But at the same time, you couldn't put passengers on it because it was too heavy."

Hickey added, "The conclusion in both of those groups is that it was not practical, and the costs were in the 5-, 10-, 15-, 20-billion dollar range."

The FAA estimates that an explosion of a fully-loaded passenger aircraft, such as a 747 or Airbus A380, would "result in death and destruction causing societal loss of at least $1.2 billion based on prior calamities." The cost of retrofitting the existing fleet of 3,800 aircraft with nitrogen systems is estimated at $140,000 to $220,000 per plane.

Wayne Rogers, who lost his daughter and two granddaughters aboard TWA 800, blames the aviation industry and the FAA for waiting far too long to address the problems of fuel tank flammability.

"They put a price on my daughter's head -- and my granddaughters'. That doesn't sit well with me," he said.

More accidents likely without changes

In the years since TWA 800, engineers at the FAA have been able to adapt the nitrogen safety systems used on military planes for a practical application in passenger jets. The new system is light enough and small enough that the FAA says it should now be mandatory.

"Our philosophy is to address aviation safety threats whenever practicable solutions are found, especially when dealing with intractable and catastrophic risks like fuel tank explosions that are virtually certain to occur," the FAA said in a statement last November.

Without the new generation nitrogen system -- or some other method to reduce the flammability of vapors in fuel tanks -- the FAA predicts that four more air disasters like TWA are likely over the next 50 years and that there is "a nearly 40 percent probability of five or more accidents."

Although the likelihood is small that a flight would explode again as TWA 800 did, the FAA said fuel tanks on 3,800 large commercial airliners collectively pose a dangerous risk and should be fixed.

"Human life is very important to me and anyone who's involved in aviation safety," Hickey said. "I'm very proud of how we've managed to continuously improve aviation safety through the years."

CNN's Andy Segal, Jim Polk, David Mattingly, Jeff Reid, Kimberly Arp Babbit, and Ben Burnstein contributed to this article.

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