Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Boeing Takes a Lesson From Yogi Berra

The wreckage of TWA 800 burns on the Atlantic July 1996
What timing is this? Here we are on the16th anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800 and Boeing is making me feel like Yogi Berra.
The famous American League baseball player once described watching Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit home runs as being like "deja vu all over again."

Unfortunately, the deja vu I'm seeing isn't a triumph of human achievement - it is a repetition of corporate behavior at its worst as the plane maker dodges - now for nearly a half century - fixing an inherent problem in its airliners.

Photo courtesy Boeing
The shear audacity of Boeing's stubbornness must be part of the reason the Federal Aviation Administration decided to levy the second largest fine ever against the company for being one year late in submitting its plans for handling the problem of explosive fuel tanks on its B757 and B747 airliners. Three hundred eighty three U.S. registered airplanes are affected - as are an unknown number flying outside of the country.

Pan Am Flight 214, felled by a fuel tank explosion in 1963
But dragging its feet is what Boeing does best - ever since the very first fuel tank explosion on a jetliner brought down a B707 over Elkton, Maryland in 1963, killing all 81 people aboard.

To give the company the benefit of the doubt, perhaps their engineers were still scratching their heads over that accident and a TWA 707 explosion the following year that killed 49 people. If that's the case the eggheads building airplanes ought to have been embarrassed because the air safety investigators and pilots with the Air Line Pilots Association were already on to the problem, demanding fixes on fuel tanks then, and nearly every decade afterwards while fuel tank explosions continued to claim lives. (For a complete understanding, read my book, Deadly Departure HarperCollins 2000)

Still,  Boeing loudly and repeatedly said, no, no, no. Even after TWA Flight 800 exploded shortly after taking off from JFK en route to Paris on July 17, 1996 killing 230 people.
Tom McSweeney at the NTSB hearing on Flight 800
By that time, even Boeing could no longer say it didn't recognize the safety threat of a design that located heat-generating equipment directly beneath the center fuel tank. In 2008, the FAA finally ordered manufacturers to make design changes and provide airlines with instructions for installing systems that will reduce the probability of fuel tank explosions.

Again, Boeing balked and the required plans were submitted a year late. The beauty of that procrastination is that it invites operators to dawdle too. Airlines operating Boeing jets say they should be given more time to install the manufacturer-designed systems. The airline trade group Airlines for America has asked for extensions in their deadlines. 

John Goglia, who was on the National Transportation Safety Board during the TWA Flight 800 investigation and who is now an air safety consultant had a somewhat cynical take. He explained, it's better if airlines can put off installing fuel tank inerting systems since older airplanes are being replaced with new ones at a steady clip.  "Every plane they don't have to retrofit is going to save them a lot of money," he told a reporter.

A recalcitrant airplane manufacturer and operators reluctant to make expensive modifications while the safety of the flying public is jeopardized. Why, it is deja vu all over again.  

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