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Jan 27, 2013

Dreamliner 787: Management issues add to technical failures

While the integrity of the electrical systems and lithium ion batteries on 787 Dreamliners remain centre stage the failures of management at Boeing and public administration at the FAA are increasingly difficult to avoid


There seems to be an expectation in the US media that the FAA may approve a conditional return to service for the 787 while the NTSB pursues with as much time as it needs a full resolution of the causes and remedies of the two Dreamliner incidents that caused the type to be grounded.

It is difficult to believe this looking on from afar, since one more significant 787 incident before the JAL and ANA fire and emergency are understood could have dire consequences for Boeing and its Dreamliners.

But the NTSB is not the body that issues ADs, or groundings, or other operational interventions. Those actions are the prerogative of the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, while the National Transportation Safety Board is tasked with discovering causes and making recommendations.

It isn’t just the slow progress in investigating the incidents that is troubling the airline industry in general, but the disclosure in the NTSB’s most recent update that the fire under the rear cabin floor of the JAL 787 burned for at least 99 minutes, an event Boeing had declared to be impossible before the FAA certified the battery, from a Japanese company with no prior experience of making airliner batteries, to be safe.

And in a jet claimed to be ETOPS 330 minutes ready.

The rational and appropriate response to these significant incidents is that they must be understood and the necessary interventions made to prevent them happening again before the 787 returns to service.

Anything else would be madness.

In the wide frame view of these matters surely there is a managerial as well as regulatory dimension to the groundings. Boeing’s management of the 787 project was one that couldn’t tell the truth about, nor keep control over vital aspects of the Dreamliner program, for almost all of its existence.

We are looking at a management tragedy at Boeing and quite likely at regulatory failure in the FAA, since on the established facts in the NTSB briefings, it was ineffectual in certifying aspects of the Dreamliner as safe to operate.

That is not to say, however, that it was willfully negligent or indulgent. It just didn’t do the job entrusted to it.

While the focus on these particular incidents has been deeply technical in nature, there will be a time when managerial and administrative failures must be dealt with to fully sign off on this incredibly damaging and frustrating turn of events.



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