One of the great ironies of the tragedy of TWA Flight 800 is that it could end up saving even more lives than were lost.
Over the weekend, almost 200 older Boeing 737s were pulled out of service for immediate inspections. The problem: Potentially damaged fuel-pump wires that needed replacement. It caused delays and cancellations for travelers, but it also took out of circulation some potentially dangerous planes.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) - often under siege for not acting on safety concerns quickly enough -won plaudits for its immediate response, and some criticism for not recognizing the problem even sooner.
But aviation analysts in both camps agree the industry's new focus on wiring - the direct result of the1996 explosion of TWA Flight 800 over New York's Long Island - is closing a potentially deadly blind spot in aviation safety.
"This is the system working," says Richard Golaszewski of GRA Inc., a transportation consulting firm based in suburban Philadelphia.
At the end of April, mechanics at Continental Air Lines found a 737 with a fuel leak through pinhead-sized holes. It was caused by a problem with a high-voltage fuel-pump line. Continental alerted the FAA last week. And on Thursday, the regulatory agency ordered inspections within seven days of all high-voltage fuel-pump lines in each wing of 737s that had flown 50,000 hours or more.
By Saturday afternoon, 13 planes had been inspected and mechanics found that the protective coating around wires in half of the planes examined was worn. In one plane, a wire had been worn bare and showed signs of sparking.
The FAA immediately revised its order and Sunday grounded all older 737s until they were inspected and damaged wires replaced.
"This action demonstrates the FAA's commitment to maintaining this nation's demanding standards of flying safety," says FAA Administrator Jane Garvey.
But critics contend the FAA came in a "day late and a dollar short." They say the agency should have moved to have all wiring near fuel tanks inspected and replaced months ago - as soon as investigators zeroed in on damaged wiring as a potential cause of the explosion of TWA Flight 800.
"It shows they missed the boat. What happened was not a result of a new overall inspection program. A mechanic found the problem," says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association in Washington. "You'd think after TWA Flight 800, they would have taken more aggressive action on wiring."
The FAA currently requires planes go through routine, rigorous inspections. At most airlines, mechanics check basic operating systems at least every other day. Every 100, 800, and 1,200 hours of flight time, increasingly more detailed inspections and maintenance are done. Once a year, the plane is taken out of service for a week for comprehensive overhaul. And at least once every four years, the plane is essentially taken apart and scoured from nose to tail - everything but the wiring.
The wiring was believed to last for the life of the plane. It was usually left untouched unless an obvious problem was spotted. The conventional wisdom said it was better to leave it in place, rather than risk causing a problem by disturbing it.
"People have come to realize there is an age-deterioration problem," says Mr. Golaszewski. "You're dealing with wiring from 30 years ago. They thought the coatings used were fairly impervious, and it turns out they weren't."
The Flight Safety Foundation in Washington is studying more than 6,000 reports made on wiring problems over the past 20 years.
"So far, we have yet to find anything that looks like a major safety hazard," says Stuart Matthews, president of the foundation. "But that's not to say that we won't find something in the future."
Mr. Matthews applauds the FAA for its immediate action in this case, noting it didn't worry about the public-relations problem of grounding planes on Mother's Day.
"Delays bother me, but they should still stop and check the planes," says Alice Mann, who was leaving Boston for San Francisco.