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air safety

Feb 10, 2013

Dreamliners: A failure of effective public administration?

Comment It may not be the first thing that comes to mind in the Dreamliner crisis, but there is an argument that could see the botched if not fudged certifi



It may not be the first thing that comes to mind in the Dreamliner crisis, but there is an argument that could see the botched if not fudged certification of the Boeing 787’s battery system as part of a more generalized failure of public administration on a global scale.

Big call? Let me try to explain in too few words.

There has been immense, and justifiable pressure in recent decades for public administration, which includes aviation regulators, to be less wasteful and more efficient.

Which is critical to having a globally competitive economy, where taxation and regulation are ripe targets for cut backs.

But the weak point in this desirable outcome may be that instead of cutting back in inefficiency in executing necessary public policy, there has been a concurrent move to reduce the scope of regulation, thus reducing the task load of regulation, whether in banking, pure food acts, building standards, and ….transportation, whether by truck, ship, or aircraft.

It could be argued that in this process the selection of senior management in public service functions has  moved more to the criteria of meeting key performance indicators skewed in favor of reduced public responsibilities and thus reduced public officials charged with carrying out those responsibilities.

One consequence of this would be to reward public administrators who cut the wages bill rather than deliver better public policy execution.

In reaching that result the temptation, if not overt policy instruction, has been to permit increasing levels of self regulation, which in banking in the US, UK and EU, lead to an orgy of corrupt, vicious, and outrageously indulgent and dishonest behavior, of the type that in the US has been largely forgiven, and on the other side of the Atlantic, appears to be largely if somewhat slowly subject to fiercer prosecution of corporations and individuals.

In the case of the Dreamliner 787, there were other issues as well, including doggedly willful dishonesty in Boeing which relied on PR to set engineering and performance targets and delivery dates while the company gutted itself of old fashioned and costly technical expertise, all the while pretending to be a great American enterprise, yet shunting risk and reward  and even design to overseas partners who were not only incompetent in some cases, but inadequately supervised. (To paraphrase Boeing itself on these failings.)

Some of the immediate consequences of this has been the botching of the 747-8 program, to the extent that the aircraft haven’t yet attained brochure parity in performance, and fly with systems that suppress or ‘alleviate’ handling deficiencies arising from a job badly done.

(We are promised the full 748 products sometime in 2014, assuming the various refinements gain FAA approval. Which might be harder than assumed before the 787 grounding.)

Many observers and analysts have pointed out that the outsourcing of such things as valid design data to the aircraft manufacturer by the FAA, in order to assist certification of particular airliners, has been going on for a long time.

But has it been as incompetent or even dishonest or rushed, or at the very least, as indulgent and unquestioning as it has been in the case of 787?

The FAA is now investigating its past behavior in this matter. Will it say ‘Oh shucks, we really tried to do everything right, and this is all such a shock.’ Or will it come to a different view. At the moment it is not apparently in any hurry to go for ‘Oh shucks ….’. The most recent indications are that it regards the deficiencies in the lithium ion batteries as something to be addressed thoroughly rather than hastily, even though Boeing has let it be known that it can come up with an interim fix even before the causes of the mid January grounding are fully understood.

Boeing may be asking us to fly on blind trust in this respect. Why should it be trusted? Given the record of this company in relation to the 787 project, why should it be trusted with anything?

The second part of this situation in the open ended review of the certification process, meaning its integrity  and it is clearly open to discovery as to what else might have been botched or fudged in the data and claims about other aspects of the 787 design in its materials, systems and quality of construction, scattered as it is across most of the northern hemisphere and even to an extent in Australia.

The writer may seem a little angry on this topic. The American side of my family including some who worked for Boeing in the 707 to early 747 times. When I first visited my roots on that side in the mid 60s I was going to get my riveting tools and rock up to Renton to work on the greatest birds made in peace time, since I was still legally a dual national, but restlessness took me on, through that great country, to connect with other roots.

I am bitterly, angrily ashamed of what these looter-taker managers have done to Boeing . It is inexcusable.The rebirth and restoration of this company to the place generations of people in the Pacific Northwest worked to send it  is needed, and any amount of babbling on by the apologists will not help shift it back to where it should be.

But I digress. There are severe failings in public administration in our societies, with scandalous underperformance and lack of transparent air safety regulation and investigation in this country.

Whether it is a matter of robber bankers, or the selling out of Australia’s disease free status in agriculture and livestock on the sacrificial altar of free trade, or  weak big pharma friendly drug oversight, our public service objectives have been corrupted and undermined.

Efficiency in public administration must not mean weakened standards.  The goal must be better administration, not less effective administration.

Be it in the FAA, or EASA, or CASA.


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