Is the airline industry doing all it can and should to prevent or minimize the fires that often follow an airplane crash?
A new look needs to be taken at this question following the crash this week of a Delta Air Lines jetliner during takeoff at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Thirteen people died in that crash - seven of them from burns and six from smoke inhalation.Though Delta has consistently won praise for employing the latest technology and for keeping its fleet up to date, the fact remains that 20 percent of all fatalities in "survivable" air crashes are caused by subsequent fire or smoke.
Likewise, though much progress has been made recently, the fact remains that too much has been left undone and that there has been plenty of footdragging when it comes to guarding against airline fires.
Since 1984, the Federal Aviation Administration has required airlines to: install low-level emergency escape-route lighting that can be seen through smoke; cover seats with fire-blocking material; equip lavatories with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers; and provide more effective hand-held fire extinguishers in cabins.
Only last week, in fact, the FAA adopted new rules designed to give passengers two minutes more to evacuate a crashed plane before fire erupts.
But the new rules, adopted only after years of haggling over the costs involved, do not take effect until 1990 and will apply only to newly-built planes and the relatively few old ones that are extensively refurbished.
Meanwhile, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio has been pushing a bill to require commercial airliners to install self-sealing, break-away fuel lines and more crash-worthy fuel tanks. Though Congress passed a measure on this subject late last year, it was watered down so much that the bill requires only that the FAA study the matter and report to Congress later this year.
It's hard to understand why more study is needed, since the safety systems being sought by Metzenbaum have been in place on military planes for years.
If nothing else comes from the tragic crash this week in Texas, let's hope it at least gives impetus to efforts to protect travelers from airline fires.