When the FAA uses terms like 'we are feeling no pressure' and 'top to bottom review' when it comes to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner program, a day after Boeing dropped hints about a quick fix, it means things may be about to get uglier.
From a distance, without the benefit of quiet bars and briefings, those of us trying to follow the intricacies of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner grounding need to listen to changes in terminology and emphasis from the various parties to try and work out where this is going at any particular moment.
It’s a bit like financial analysts hanging on every word that US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke makes concerning the American economy to see if the hand on the lever controlling the currency printing presses is going to shift it to ‘more’ or ‘less’.
However the departing US Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood was more direct in this overnight report by Bloomberg.
La Hood introduced, prominently, the term “top to bottom review” while insisting that the FAA would not lift the Dreamliner grounding until the US regulator “had got it right.” This puts the emphasis back on the FAA audit of what actually happened during the certification process that determined the 787s were safe to fly, rather than the specific NTSB investigations into two battery failure incidents that caused the type’s grounding last month.
This is the opposite signal to the one we referenced a day ago from Boeing that it unofficially, has a ‘fix’, a domed bin into which the li-ion batteries at the current heart of concerns about the 787s would be put, so that they could just go and burn themselves up to their heart’s content while belching toxic fumes through a pipe into the atmosphere so that any such affected flight could just fly on, presumably for hours over the arctic or mid Pacific vastness.
Which brings us to the reality check. If Boeing’s unofficial solution, which is similar in some respects to the one Cessna is in the process of seeking to certify for its Citation corporate jet family, were to be adopted pending the full NTSB determination of the case of two serious battery incidents in 787s last month, will it work for hours and hours before a Dreamliner can land?
The answer is unknown but the question is vital, and clearly, from La Hood’s speech, the right answer has to be given, and proven, before the 787’s fly again.
This will probably get rather intense, and spill out into the open at some stage, soon, as Boeing does everything it can to get the jets delivered and paid for by impatient customer airlines.
Boeing could draw on history for support. The FAA allowed Douglas DC-10s back into the air even though not all of the issues that led to their grounding in 1979 had been fully resolved and fixed when flights resumed, with the FAA dealing with the remaining issues through various advisory or compulsory orders.
However it is no longer 1979. There are different expectations as to what the safe regulation of flight means, and while there are good arguments to be voiced both for and against prescriptive regulation in any field, the overwhelming support seems to be for more effective regulation.
With luck and courage, the 787 grounding could change the way the FAA works, and make the certification procedures and standards for new technology airliners like the Dreamliners both better and more effective.
How costly this proves to the Dreamliner is yet to be determined.
Updated: In the latest reports, the NTSB has engaged a Naval warefare laboratory with more than 40 years experience of lithium-ion battery developments, including when they were not discussed outside of defence circles, and broadened its inquiries to other parts of the electrical architecture of the 787.
A broadening of the scope of the inquiry had been anticipated from the outset of the NTSB involvement.
Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.