Tomorrow marks a sad anniversary – the tragic crash of TWA Flight 800 into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 230 passengers and crew members on board.
This morning, I visited the National Transportation Safety Board’s Training Center in Ashburn, Virginia, where the wreckage of TWA 800 has been reassembled to serve as a teaching tool, helping investigators learn the best techniques for studying aviation accidents. I was joined by NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker and Matt Ziemkiewicz, head of the National Air Disaster Alliance, who lost his sister in the crash.
I was at the Training Center to announce a new rule designed to prevent the type of catastrophic explosions that brought down Flight 800 by neutralizing or eliminating flammable gases from center wing fuel tanks of commercial passenger planes. This fuel tank safety rule is a memorial to the victims and a tribute to dedicated public servants who have spent their lives making flying safer.
Fuel tank explosions are a known risk on large passenger planes, one we have a responsibility to address. The Federal Aviation Administration has taken a number of steps designed to identify and eliminate ignition sources in and around airplane fuel tanks. But the full answer lies not just in trying to remove wires that could short and spark an explosion, but also with inventing a way to reduce the flammability of the tank itself.
FAA engineers and scientists have worked tirelessly to develop a practical way to rid fuel tanks of the flammable vapors. In May 2002, their perseverance paid off with a breakthrough system that replaces oxygen in the fuel tank with inert gas, effectively preventing the potential ignition of flammable vapors. Boeing has developed an inerting system as well, and it is already available on some new planes.
Under our rule, within two years new passenger planes must be equipped with systems to limit fuel tank flammability. The rule also requires that airlines retire or retrofit their existing fleets – a total of 2,730 Airbus and Boeing aircraft with center wing fuel tanks – over a nine-year period.
I recognize that this is a challenging time for commercial aviation, but there is no doubt that another crash like TWA 800 would pose a far greater challenge. We can’t change the past, but we can make the future safer for thousands of air travelers – and this rule does just that.