TWA Flight 800: Ten Years and Nothing has Changed

Normally, when a faulty design leads to injuries or worse, the immediate reaction is to minimize the damage by initiating a recall and fixing the problem. A visit to the National Consumer Product Safety Commission website offers several examples as to how even the most innocuous of products can sometimes go wrong.

While it is disturbing to see the list every month, it is possible to take some comfort in the fact that the manufacturers or marketers of these faulty products are taking responsibility for their mistakes and initiating recalls. It is also a source of comfort that these recalls happen fairly quickly, sometimes on the same day that a flaw is discovered.

It appears that the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Traffic Safety Board are operating on a different schedule. It has taken them ten years to come to no real course of action over a severe design flaw. This is a disturbing development, considering that the faulty product that they are dealing was an electrical line in a B747 jet that caused the plane to explode shortly after take off.

On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 exploded as it was ascending to 13,000 feet, killing all 230 passengers and crew members. A four year investigation by the National Traffic Safety Board revealed that an electrical surge jumped from wire to wire until it entered the fuel tanks, where the fuel vapors ignited as a result. They further determined that placement of the fuel tanks on B747’s was a contributor to the event, and that this problem could re-occur with other B747’s as well as models of similar type, such as the B727.

Rather than demand that all B747’s go through mandatory wiring inspection and tank retrofitting, the FAA has left such decisions up to the airlines, which are (perhaps predictably) doing very little. While new models of B747’s that are coming off of the assembly line are being equipped with devices in their fuel tanks that would pump the tanks with nitrogen-rich air (thus rendering the danger of combustion inert,) older planes are under no such specifications. Considering that the shelf life of a B747 jet is over three decades, this is an unforgivable error in judgment.

TWA Flight 800 should not be considered an anomaly. On May 6, a Transmile Airlines B727 on the runway in Bangalore, India had one of its fuel tanks explode due to a similar electrical surge.

When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take off in 1986, the cause was found to be a faulty O-ring gasket that essentially failed, spilling fuel all over the interior of the rocket. The problem was immediately identified and fixed so as to avoid a repeat of a loss of life. The Space Shuttle program has had 115 flights over a twenty five year period. In contrast, the B747 jetliner has that many flights in the air at any given hour. If NASA, with such a comparatively small flight schedule and absolutely no innocent passengers involved in its work, can devote immediate energy and effort to fixing a fatal flaw in its vehicles, surely the airlines should be made to fix a design flaw that potentially puts so many more at risk.

There is no excuse for a disaster of the magnitude of TWA Flight 800 to be treated with such a lack of urgency. The FAA should tighten its requirements and demand re-wiring and tank retrofitting of any and all B747’s and B727’s.

While most airline accidents are the result of pilot error, the blame for an episode such as Flight 800 falls squarely on the manufacturer of the plane, the airlines that failed to correct the problem, and the federal agency that is toothless in its enforcement.

The Law Firm of Lewis and Tompkins have proudly represented the families of survivors of plane crashes. We have a thorough understanding of both liability law and National Traffic Safety Board procedures. If you have lost a loved one due to the carelessness of others, contact our offices for a free case assessment today.

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