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FAA criticised for being captive of Boeing in 787 crisis

America’s FAA, the equivalent of Australia’s CASA, is under fire from John Goglia, a former board member of the NTSB, the equivalent of the ATSB, for abuse of process in the Boeing 787 grounding.

The article, in the AIN blog Torqued has been sent to us by more than a dozen very well placed contacts in the US industry, with expressions of concern in some cases as to what is seen as a procedurally corrupt attempt by the FAA to avoiding the suspension of the Dreamliner’s  type certificate while a serious fire risk is defined and eliminated rather than shoved into a ‘super box’.

I don’t question that a grounding of the 787 fleet was prudent and necessary in the interests of air safety. But I do question the use of an Emergency Airworthiness Directive to accomplish that grounding, when no fix is provided. There’s no inspection that’s mandated, no corrective action that needs to be taken. The action required is a marvel of government gobbledygook. Under the heading AD Requirements, it states: “[T]his AD requires modification of the battery system, or other actions, in accordance with a method approved by the manager, Seattle Aircraft Certification Office (ACO) FAA.” What does that mean when no method is provided? 

What it means to me is that the FAA engaged in linguistic–if not legalistic–contortions to arrive at this method of grounding the fleet. In the process it basically made a sham of the airworthiness directive process. Why does that matter, you ask?  Well, first, the government shouldn’t engage in legal contortions for one entity that it perhaps wouldn’t do for anyone else. Process matters, and treating everyone the same is a worthy government goal.

So what I deduce from this extreme stretching of the AD process is that the FAA was trying to ground the fleet without pulling the 787’s type certificate. I can understand that Boeing would have fought hard to keep the agency from pulling its type certificate. Clearly that would have impugned the aircraft and Boeing’s design and manufacturing far more than an Emergency Airworthiness Directive. But does that make it the right thing to do?

Those of us old enough to remember the 1979 grounding of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 remember that it was accomplished by pulling the aircraft’s type certificate. In that case, after American Airlines Flight 191 crashed on takeoff from Chicago O’Hare Airport on May 25, 1979, killing all 271 on board and two people on the ground, investigators determined that the accident occurred because of faulty maintenance procedures. But investigators also found a design flaw in the aircraft. Because of that design flaw, the FAA suspended the DC-10’s type certificate. Once the design flaw was fixed, the FAA lifted the order suspending the type certificate.

The FAA pulled the type certificate because of questions it had regarding the aircraft design, and pulling the type certificate was the only way to legitimately halt operation of the aircraft. The agency didn’t issue an Emergency AD to the aircraft operators, because aircraft operators can’t fix design or manufacturing problems.

Which brings me to the Emergency AD on the Boeing 787. It’s pretty clear that United–currently the only U.S. operator of the type–can’t fix a design or manufacturing problem with the aircraft, its electrical system or its batteries and that any FAA order should have been directed at the manufacturer, Boeing. So what difference does it make? The aircraft is grounded, right? Well, it may end up making a difference when a supposed fix is found for the problem. It’s a lot easier to say that an AD has been complied with than to ensure that the requirements of a type certificate have been met.

It should be noted that between the article by Goglia being written and published the debate within the FAA as to whether it accepts the Boeing ‘permanent box solution’  or demands that something more thorough be done in relation to the electrical system and the causes, has been heard and reported in the US mainstream media.

The debate is coming down to this. Should Boeing be allowed to bin the problem, unsolved, and use passengers as crash test dummies, or will the FAA be true to its words and put safety above all else?

This is of course a much bigger issue than Australia’s own embarrassment over the kangaroo court antics of its FAA (CASA) and its NTSB (ATSB) in relation to the Pel-Air crash report.

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  • 1
    ghostwhowalksnz
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    If I remember correctly the FAA didnt ground the 737 when a tail rudder control problem sent a few planes along with all on board in vertical dives into the ground

  • 2
    comet
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Some Plane Talking readers previously speculated that the 787 battery problem may just be the symptom, while the cause may be something further upstream in the electrical system. The 787 was plagued with electrical panel problems in 2012, which were widely reported.

    For Boeing, it might just be more convenient to blame the battery itself, because to redesign the whole electrical system would be a complete disaster as far as an extended grounding goes.

    Even if Boeing is in bed with the FAA (which is quite likely what got them into this mess in the first place), don’t they still have to convince the Japanese authorities before they can resume any meaningful return to service for the 787?

  • 3
    Ian Barlow
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Game Changer.

  • 4
    comet
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Yes, every part on the 787 was supposed to be a “game changer,” according to former Boeing CEO Alan Mullaly.

    Airbus blames Mullaly for the 787 mess, but wasn’t Mullaly the last Boeing exec who had engineering experience?

    I wonder how much all the Dreamliner fiasco and shenanigans are influencing airlines that are soon to make purchasing decisions about their next aircraft. Especially when we see photos showing great progress on the Airbus A350. Which way will Virgin Australia go?

  • 5
    erikhb
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Boeing said this aircraft will be a “game changer”.
    That’s the problem right there…

    This is not a game, but real life, with real lives at stake when something goes wrong.

    Somewhere along the way, that important fact got lost in a flood of hype.

  • 6
    Ian Barlow
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Game Over.
    They’ve lost.

  • 7
    keesje
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    “Process matters, and treating everyone the same is a worthy government goal.”

    Who suggests Boeing is everyone?

    Who suggest Boeing the governments are independent?

  • 8
    bill mecorney
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    The 787 has failed (in revenue service), to demonstrate an ongoing compliance with conditions that were required to acquire the type certificate. Specifically, spontaneous production of pressure and thermal increase within the battery, leading to fire. Fire is prohibited, as are the conditions that lead up to ignition (thermal runaway).

    Developing a procedure to “MITIGATE” a fire (the heavy, vented BOX) is a waste of time.

    Fire is prohibited, as are the precedent causes of fire. What is prohibited cannot be made acceptable with “mitigation”. Does anyone at Boeing read the english language? The Federal Register, where these conditions of failure are prohibited? By Law?

  • 9
    Kapo
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Boeing and FAA may think that they can pull a fast one to mitigate the former’s commercial obligations and the latter’s culpability in the certification process. In the end no matter how much PR, the general public will decide that if an airplane can catch fire they will not board it.

    “If it’s a Boeing 787, I ain’t going!”.

    There starts the subsequent chain of events that will get minds on developing a real solution.

  • 10
    bill mecorney
    Posted March 5, 2013 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    It is widely reported that BOEING were replacing Batteries in high numbers prior to grounding.

    Since it was unusual (and expensive, not to mention troublesome for clients), one would think they were on to something. If it was the solution, why have we heard nothing further? If merely a stopgap, that seems a trifle cynical; when do the FAA get noticed of the situation?

    It cannot have been the answer, Boeing would not be building a box if the new batteries were the outcome of actual work to rectify an ongoing and dangerous situation….

    If Boeing is the new FAA, why are we still paying the yes people in Oklahoma?

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