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S P E C I A L   S E C T I O N TWA Flight 800: One Year Later

NTSB or FAA: Who's really in charge of guarding the skies?

TWA memorial July 16, 1997
Web posted at: 9:25 p.m. EDT (0125 GMT)

From Correspondent Christine Negroni

NEW YORK (CNN) -- As a result of last July's crash of TWA Flight 800, personal loss has become a public mission as some of the victims' relatives lobby for aviation safety.

But even as they lobby on Capitol Hill, it is questionable how much the families can accomplish. They are up against a multibillion-dollar, highly technical industry and a Federal Aviation Administration that is often criticized for being slow to enact safety changes.

DiVito

Only one consumer action group represents the interests of air travelers in the United States, even though every day half of the world's commerical aircraft are flying over the United States. Aviation experts say that sometimes only an accident generates public pressure for reform.

According to Robert DiVito, who heads the Aviation Consumer Action Project, "We need to get this ground swell of support to say, you know, we're not dealing with this anymore. This is not the way this industry is gonna run any longer."

Agencies disagree on how to handle fuel tank vapors

A few weeks after Flight 800 exploded over the Atlantic, investigators determined that an explosion in the nearly empty center fuel tank brought down the plane.

Airplane

In December, the National Transportation Safety Board urged the FAA to immediately reconsider the practice of allowing planes to fly with flammable vapors in the fuel tank. Similar recommendations had been made to the FAA 25 years before, after a similar crash.

FAA Director Guy Gardner said the agency chose other ways to reduce the chance of an explosion. "The FAA looked at volatile fuels in the 70s," Gardner said, "and determined at that time that there weren't any feasible methods to eliminate the flammable vapors in fuel tanks."

And the FAA is not sure the NTSB's recommendations are feasible now either, particularly the one that calls for carrying more fuel in the center tank to minimize hazardous vapors.

Hall

Still, with 230 people dead in the TWA crash, NTSB officials are in no mood to wait. "The position we have taken is that the explosive vapors is an unsafe condition," NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said.

In public hearings and private interviews, agency officials insist the same situation can occur again, and that the FAA must at least act on temporary changes -- and soon.

Jim Burnett, former NTSB chairman, said he saw foot dragging. "I'm disappointed that they've been as slow as they have been to initiate some short-term corrections."

Fuel Tank

Others say the issue isn't so clear cut. Mark Abels of TWA said, "The FAA evaluates all sides of the question. How will this recommendation increase risk as well as how will it increase safety?"

NTSB investigators are conducting a series of test flights to try and bridge their technical dispute with the FAA over whether changing operating procedures can reduce the risk of fuel tank explosions.

At the same time, Boeing, manufacturer of most of the world's commercial carriers, and airlines are preparing a unified industry position on the safety proposals.

 
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