Fuel Inerting Rule Issued by US FAA

The new fuel inerting rule that is about to be instated by the US FAA may have a number of airlines grumbling about cost, but it can also potentially save thousands of lives. The rule will require US airlines to retrofit as many Boeing and Airbus passenger aircraft as possible, at a cost of about $150,000 to $400,000 per aircraft over a period of seven years.

Ever since TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long island twelve years ago, a lot of time and energy has been put into ensuring that the incident isn’t repeated. At the time all 230 people on board were killed as the aircraft’s center fuel tank exploded as started its climb from New York’s JFK airport. The problem? Fuel vapor ignition. At the time the only system in existence that could prevent this atrocity weighed more than 300 pounds and was extremely costly. Fortunately technology has come a long way since then and now technological breakthroughs have resulted in a decrease in weight, complexity, size and cost. This has lead to the FAA making the decision to ensure that all airlines install ‘inerting’ devices on passenger jets with center fuel tanks. The new rule was instituted on 18 July and will likely see as many as 2,730 aircraft retrofitted with the new fuel inerting systems. The move will likely cost the aviation industry approximately $435 million over the course of 35 years and will see changes made to all existing aircraft models. It will also require that any new aircraft leaving the production lines from 2010 will have to be fitted with the device. It seems simple enough and few will argue with the value of the cost of the operation over the thousands or even millions of lives that can ultimately be saved by making use of this important technology.

So how does the technology work? It is quite simple actually – the device that is fitted to the tanks reduces the risk of explosions by replacing some of the oxygen with nitrogen. This might not remove all the oxygen, but the FAA has determined that an oxygen concentration that is brought down to as low as 12% is enough to greatly reduce the probability of fuel tank explosion. While the FAA has been in favor of instating such a rule for a long time now, the technology simply hasn’t been readily available. However, recent years has brought to the fore a lightweight nitrogen generating system that has now made the move a more viable endeavor. By removing the moveable parts used in the heavy, expensive military counterpart, the mechanism’s weight was reduced to just 106 pounds for a Boeing 737 and 257 pounds for a Boeing 747. Also, permitting a higher percentage of oxygen than previously allowed made the equipment smaller, lighter and cheaper. This means flights in the near future will be much safer for commercial flight passengers and pilots.