When was the last time aviation was so much in the news? Last week, stories on airline safety were among the most-emailed stories at The New York Times. Some days, there were four different aviation stories in the top 10.
Topics included thumbs up for the Dreamliner, the long airport waits resulting from sequester, the decision to fund the F.A.A. to stop sequester-caused delays, and reversing the decision allowing us to pocket our pocket knives. (FlyerTalk was on top of all the breaking news.)
Perhaps lost in all this were the two-day hearings by the National Transportation Safety Board raising its own questions about Dreamliner batteries and certification.
This past weekend, an op-ed by James Hall, a former chairman of the N.T.S.B. (1994 – 2001), questioning back-scratching relationships between government regulators and the airline industry quickly rose to the number-one emailed story at the NYT.
Mr. Hall believes that Dreamliner’s redesigned lithium-ion battery was approved with “astonishing swiftness.” So did some in-the-know FT members. Hall’s piece was titled A Back Seat for Safety at the FAA. But the headline writer missed the nut graph “that the Federal Aviation Administration and the industry it regulates share a cozy relationship that sometimes takes a front seat to safety.”
Reflecting back to his tenure at the F.A.A., Mr. Hall states flat-out that “effective government oversight helps prevent fatal airplane accidents.” The approval process in his day involved “designated airworthiness representatives” with vast experience and no allegiances to aircraft manufacturers.
But that changed in 2005 when manufacturers like Boeing were permitted to select their own engineers to certify aircraft, suggesting “a slide toward industry self-certification.”
The reason? Saving dollars. The F.A.A. predicted it would save $25 million between 2006 and 2015 under the new self-regulating guidelines, according to Mr. Hall. And he reminds us that Boeing had $81 billion in revenue for 2012.
“Essentially, aircraft makers persuaded the F.A.A. to let them certify their own aircraft so they could save money,” Mr. Hall wrote.
Last week’s N.T.S.B. hearings revealed the F.A.A “let Boeing help write the safety standards, develop the testing protocol and then perform those tests.”
On the subject of Boeing’s lithium-ion batteries, he writes that problems first surfaced in November 2011.
And then this shocker: In 2008, a year after standards for the battery system were approved with special conditions on the containment and venting of the batteries, stricter industry guidelines for these batteries were released. But the F.A.A. did not require Boeing’s 787 to meet those new guidelines.
Boeing was not the first manufacturer with evidence of troubles with the new-tech battery. Two years ago, Cessna had to replace new lithium-ion batteries with less-combustible nickel-cadmium batteries installed in their newest jets.
Last week, Boeing’s chief engineer, Mike Sinnett, admitted to the N.T.S.B. hearing that their battery tests had been inadequate.
Boeing had estimated that the chances of a battery failure was one incident in 10 million flight hours. In fact, smoke and fire happened in batteries on two separate 787’s in just the first 52,000 flight hours.
Mr. Hall summed it up this way: Given all of that, the F.A.A.’s recent decision to approve Boeing’s plans to fix the lithium-ion battery seems shortsighted and represents a complete failure of government oversight. It is puzzling that the agency was so quick on its feet to accommodate Boeing in recertifying the safety of the airplane, without even knowing the root cause of the battery problem.
MORE FROM THE TARMAC