Aviation: USA's FAA allows Boeing 747s and 757s to fly for 15 years despite fuel tank problem
All it took for the killing of Concorde was a puncture caused by the aircraft running over a strip of metal dropped from another aircraft. But 15 years after 230 people were killed when a fuel tank problem resulted in the crash of a TWA Boeing B-747, not only is the aircraft still in service but remedial work has not been done despite an FAA instruction.
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The in-flight explosion on 17 July 1996 of New York's Long Island was and remains one of the most serious incidents in aviation.
The cause was traced to a risk of fire in the fuel tanks. The USA's Federal Aviation Authority ordered Boeing to inform all operators of the risk and to retrofit a fix. The same fix was ordered to be applied to B-757s. The FAA did not exactly rush: the deadline expired in 2010. Even so, the work has not been completed.
According to the FAA, Boeing is now more than 300 days late in fixing the B-747s and more than 400 days late in fixing the B-757s.
Boeing says that it's not doing a bad job: all new aircraft (737, 747-8, 767, 777 and 787) are having the fix built in on the production line and the new B747-8 models and the B-787 Dreamliner had the fix designed into the aircraft. The company says that 1,805 aircraft have the "system in service."
But the company did not report on progress with all the older aircraft in service. In 2005, the National Transportation Safety Board, which has absolutely no teeth other than PR value, told the FAA that its failure to compel greater progress was unacceptable and that there had been no improvement in safety since 1996. The FAA paid no heed. The faults had been identified by the NTSB which found that sparks in electrical wiring found a ready flash-point in the fuel to air mix in near-empty fuel tanks in the wing.
The fix is to modify the fuel tank system so that, as fuel is drawn off, it is replaced not with air but with inert nitrogen. Airbus was ordered to adopt a similar system and met its deadlines, even though there were no incidents reported on Airbus aircraft.
Boeing's failure to comply is all the more surprising because it involves providing technical information to airline mechanics, not to actually doing the work. The technical information provided detailed instructions on how to fix and implement the new gas regime.
The FAA has served Boeing with a "Notice to Show Cause" as to why it should not be ordered to pay a penalty exceeding USD13 million.
And the aircraft are still flying with air in the fuel tanks - and will continue to do so because the FAA's deadline for retrofitting the nitrogen system does not expire until 2017 - more than 20 years after the accident.