NTSB explores the Boeing-FAA relationship

The aviation industry and regulators need to reconsider how new jetliner designs are certified, a top safety official said Wednesday.

Regulators use the same process for certifying new, technologically advanced planes like the Boeing 787 as they did to certify “our grandfather’s aircraft,” said Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

“We must take a hard look at how to oversee and approve emerging technology in the future,” she said.

Hersman’s remarks came at the close of a two-day Washington, D.C., hearing into a Jan. 7 lithium-ion battery fire aboard a Boeing 787 parked in Boston. The NTSB continues to investigate the incident, having yet to find the cause.

Over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday, the investigative panel questioned the relationship between Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration during the certification of the 787.

The FAA grounded the 787 on Jan. 16 after a second 787 experienced a battery failure in Japan. On Friday, the FAA cleared a redesigned battery system, allowing 787s to return to passenger service soon.

The 787’s original FAA certification in late 2010 followed the usual process of Boeing working closely with the FAA to prove the integrity of the design, Jerry Hulm, a Boeing systems engineer for regulatory administration, told the panel.

“Certification is a collaborative process,” Hulm said.

The lithium-ion battery at the heart of the investigation was certified using an FAA special condition process.

In the early phases of certifying a new jet, the FAA is “heavily involved” in determining the certification process, said Dorenda Baker, director for the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service.

The agency and jet maker establish a plan of detailed testing, analysis and documentation for Boeing to prove the aircraft is safe to fly. The FAA then relies on delegates — authorized representatives within Boeing — to ensure the company is following the certification plan, she said.

The FAA has relied on the delegate system, albeit an evolving one, since the 1920s, when Congress realized it wouldn’t be able to fund the agency to keep up with demand, Baker said.

At one point, Boeing had as many as 900 delegates working on 787 certification. That’s more highly experienced employees than the FAA can afford or could recruit, said Ali Bahrami, manager of the FAA’s Renton-based Transport Airplane Directorate. The FAA conducted conformity tests during the 787 certification to ensure Boeing was undertaking the appropriate tests and performing them correctly. And the two parties met regularly to check progress and share results.

Steve Boyd, the FAA’s manager of airplane and flight crew interface, acknowledged that the agency had little expertise with lithium-ion batteries when the certification began.

The FAA can’t wait until it knows absolutely everything there is to know about a new technology before approving it, Boyd said. The industry continues to learn about aluminum, for example, even though it has been used in planes for decades.

“I think the fundamental approach we take is sound,” Boyd said. “Each new technology presents a challenge.”

Without a known root cause for the 787 battery failures, neither Boeing nor the FAA could answer the panel’s pressing question: Why did certification testing fail to reveal the potential damage of a short-circuiting lithium-ion battery? Boeing had thought short-circuiting would be a rather minor event. The 787’s charred battery from the Jan. 7 incident proved otherwise.

Boeing is racing to return to service 50 787s it had delivered to customers at the time of the Jan. 16 grounding. On Wednesday, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney estimated the company will have retrofitted those 50 jets by mid-May.

Despite the grounding, “the value proposition of the 787 … has emerged fully intact,” McNerney said in a call with analysts and journalists to discuss Boeing’s quarterly earnings.

Boeing has more than 800 orders for its mostly composite Dreamliner. The company estimates the 787 saves operators 20 percent in fuel costs compared to other aircraft of the Dreamliner’s size.

Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; mdunlop@heraldnet.com.

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