Higher Standards In The Air

More than three years after TWA Flight 800 was blown apart by a fuel tank explosion, federal regulators Thursday proposed sweeping new rules to make sure that something like that never happens again.

The regulations would affect 6,000 airplanes, including most of the models built by Airbus and Boeing, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr.

All manufacturers will have to perform top-to-bottom design reviews to make sure there are no hidden flaws in fuel tank systems that may cause an explosion. And airlines will have to adopt more stringent maintenance programs to ensure safety.

But the biggest changes will come in new planes.

The FAA will require them to be modified to either "minimize the development of combustible vapors" in fuel tanks or "prevent catastrophic damage if ignition does occur."

TWA Flight 800, a 747 bound from New York to Paris, exploded shortly after takeoff in July 1996, killing all 230 aboard. Since the crash, regulators have issued two dozen different safety initiatives dealing with fuel tanks, but nothing this big.

"This proposed action represents a fundamental change in the way aircraft are designed and operated in respect to their fuel tank systems," says Elizabeth Erickson, director of the FAA's aircraft certification service, "and also the way they are maintained."

The new rules, which could lead to design changes on popular planes like the Boeing 747, would cost about $170 million and take nearly two years to implement.

But planes won't be grounded and the airline industry won't likely grumble. Fuel tank systems have been under the microscope ever since the crash of TWA 800, and neither regulators nor manufacturers want to risk another in-flight disaster.