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FAA Issues Fuel Tank Flammability Rule, Ignoring More Stringent Safety Recommendation Made By NATCA - (7/16/2008)

CONTACTS: AIR ENM Facility Representative Mike Collins, 206-355-6853; NATCA National Office, Alexandra Caldwell, 202-220-9813, acaldwell@natcadc.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The FAA announced today the issue of a fuel tank flammability reduction rule based on the proposal it published in 2005. The FAA Aircraft Certification Engineers, represented by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) are pleased that the FAA retained the retro-fit requirement for passenger airplanes and that it modified the final rule to apply the same fuel tank flammability standards to all new transport category airplane designs. Though pleased this important safety rule was issued, the Aircraft Certification Engineers are disappointed that the FAA missed an opportunity to greatly enhance airplane safety without significant additional cost.

The FAA rule allows the flammability of fuel tanks located in the wings to be higher than fuel tanks located within the fuselage contour – not accepting the changes requested by both NATCA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to apply more stringent flammability standards to all fuel tanks. 

As a result, transport airplanes are left subjected to the significant risk of wing fuel tank explosions; even though a practical technology exists to effectively eliminate that risk.  In fact, while not required to do so by this new rule, Boeing has announced it intends to provide a fuel tank flammability reduction system for their Model 787 that could meet the more stringent standards recommended by NATCA and the NTSB.

The new rule does not require wing tank standards to meet the same warm-day requirement applied to fuel tanks located inside the airplane. As discussed in the letter from the NTSB to the FAA administrator in 2006, the Transmile Airlines B-727 airplane (aluminum) wing tank explosion in Bangalore, India (on May 4, 2006) demonstrated the flammability exposure of aluminum wing tanks is not low enough to prevent fuel tank explosions.

Applying this same warm-day requirement to wing tanks is important considering many new airplane designs, like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, will use wings made from composite materials instead of the traditional aluminum construction. 

Composite wing tanks will not cool as quickly as wing tanks made from aluminum and this will cause composite wing tanks to be more flammable than aluminum wing tanks, especially on warm days. Composites are also generally less electrically conductive than aluminum which can make it more difficult to protect against ignition sources due to lightning, electrical shorts and electrostatics.

If another TWA 800 type of accident is to be avoided, it is necessary to require that all fuel tanks meet both the ignition prevention requirements adopted by the FAA in 2001 and the most stringent of these new fuel tank flammability reduction requirements recommended by NATCA.

Therefore, NATCA recommends the FAA extend the flammability requirements adopted today for center wing tanks and other fuel tanks inside the airplane to all fuel tanks, including wing tanks.

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