Boeing, FAA reveal lessons learned on 787

Seven weeks after Boeing’s 787 was cleared to resume passenger flights, the jet’s troubles continue to prompt questions about the federal certification process.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s grounding of the 787 back in January “raises legitimate questions for the flying public about whether the certification process with the 787 worked as well as it should have,” Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said Wednesday.

The FAA grounded Boeing’s newest jet in January after lithium ion batteries failed on two 787s. The agency approved a redesigned battery system and gave the OK to return the 787 to flight in April.

On Wednesday, Larsen and other members of the House Aviation Subcommittee wanted to know what Boeing and the FAA learned from the 787’s troubles.

Margaret Gilligan, an associate administrator with the FAA, told lawmakers at a Washington, D.C., hearing that the agency’s certification process is “really quite robust.”

However, the FAA now sees ways to improve the testing process for lithium ion batteries used in aviation, she said.

As a result of the incidents with the 787’s batteries, the FAA plans to more closely monitor communication between suppliers and jetmakers like Boeing during the certification process, Gilligan said.

The 787’s lithium ion battery is built by GS Yuasa. The Japanese company sells the batteries to France’s Thales, which in turn supplies the battery system to Boeing.

The FAA is continuing its own comprehensive review of the 787 and the certification process. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced that review after the first 787 incident in January. The review is likely to be completed this summer, Gilligan said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the initial 787 battery fire aboard a Japan Airlines 787 parked at Boston’s Logan International Airport. The NTSB has not determined the cause of the battery failure.

Mike Sinnett, Boeing’s chief engineer on the 787 program, told lawmakers the two battery incidents demonstrate the effectiveness of the design process.

The 787’s redundant safety features “prevented the battery failures from putting the airplane, its passengers or crew in jeopardy,” Sinnett said.

Boeing, however, found ways to improve the battery system on the 787, he said.

Sinnett was less enthusiastic about making the battery testing process used to certify the 787’s redesigned system the new standard. That testing process would be “overly conservative” and test the battery beyond what it would ever experience in flight, he said.

Both Boeing and FAA officials said they benefited from bringing in battery experts from outside the field of aviation to resolve the 787’s battery problems. That’s a step the FAA likely will duplicate in certifying new technology in the future, Gilligan said.

Wednesday’s hearing on the 787 is one of several federal public inquiries. The NTSB previously held a two-day forum on lithium ion batteries in aviation. The NTSB also examined the certification process and 787 battery incidents in a two-day hearing in April. The U.S. Senate Transportation Committee also held a hearing on aviation safety in April.

After returning the 787 to commercial flight, Boeing delivered seven new 787s to airlines last month. The Chicago-based company will feature two 787s at the Paris Air Show next week.

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