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

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking


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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10 thoughts on “Dreamliners: A failure of effective public administration?

  1. LongTimeObserver

    Spot on. Dereliction. Thankfully, no one perished.

  2. comet

    The neo-conservatives and tea party people love small government. Wasn’t it during the George W Bush era that the FAA was downsized?

    The main aim of corporations is to make profits for shareholders. As such, they essentially behave like psychopaths, which is why they need to be regulated for the public good.

    In Boeing’s case, engineers are kept beneath multiple levels of non-engineering management. The 747-8 is now taking longer to develop than the original 747, and the 787 is nothing short of a complete and utter disaster. That management has flown the once-great company into the ground.

  3. TomTom

    Here’s a real problem: “The FAA is now investigating its past behavior in this matter.” How can FAA be expected to provide a proper investigation of its own “behavior”? There should be a special investigator appointed, akin to a special prosecutor. Of course, with the then-FAA Administrator – who pushed “The airlines and manufacturers are our ‘customers’ so we must be more solicitous and accommodating to them” philosiphy of regulation – now the lead lobbyist for the manufacturers, good luck with that request….

  4. StickShaker

    The aviation equivalent of the non-regulation of the banking sector that led to the GFC would be the scenario where aircraft manufacturers don’t need to certify aircraft at all and the FAA would have no legal powers to issue airworthiness directives or ground aircraft that were deemed unsafe. The current situation with certification of the 787 is nothing on the scale that occurred in the banking sector.

    Aviation is far more visible than the “looter takers” who were doing complex deals in derivatives on the 58th floor in Wall Street and the FAA, despite any shortcomings is still far more vigilant in its governance and oversight than was the US Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan. In today’s world of instant information and social media there is probably more public pressure on aviation authorities to get it right than ever before.

    With the benefit of hindsight the FAA should not have certified the 787 with its Li-Ion batteries in their current form. But neither should the Comet have been certified with its deadly design flaws and neither the DC10 – yet ground breaking technologies such as fly by wire were introduced without issues. New technology will always present challenges in an industry that by its very nature has to push the envelope.
    Deployment of a new battery technology is relatively mild when compared with the other new technology in the 787 and perhaps for that reason it did not receive the attention from the FAA that it deserved.

    The significant embarrassment caused to Boeing and the FAA over the current situation is likely to ensure checks are put in place to prevent a recurrence. I don’t see it as a failure of public administration nor is it analogous to the lack of regulation in the banking sector that led to the GFC. Any form of regulation is a balancing act and from time to time it may require adjustment.

  5. Rais

    Stick Shaker said “I don’t see it as a failure of public administration…” – would it have been a failure if one or two of those burning batteries had led to a crash? In Australia too, government instrumentalities are being gutted to “save money” and resulting incapacity is going to cost money and in some cases lives. I work in a Federal body whose work saves Australia about 0.5% on overseas loans; as we become more and more crippled by “economies” and “efficiency dividends” overseas lenders are going to wise up and charge us more.

  6. Tom Mullin

    You are right. But the rot set in a looong time ago. Trouble is that those who warned about it .. were completely ignored.

    “Trouble makers”, “communists’ or whatever invective came to mind at the time.

    Now here we are .. everything breaking down.

    Look her are some simple projections of Australian airline trends:

    (1) There will be zero Qantas international flights in 5 years.
    (2) There will be only Jetstar domestic flights .. until they go bankrupt (5-10 years tops).

    Qantas will only be known in aviation history books.

    Boeing will pull (be pushed?)out of commercial aviation. Just like McDonnell Douglas (which are now its current management) and Lockheed to feed on the unlimited trough of US military contracts .. until the US goes broke (just like the USSR did before it).

    Someday an Indian/Chinese/etc company will buy the rights to these names (like MG and so on) and Boeing will live on … maybe.

  7. comet

    The purpose of corporations is to make money, not to do acts for the pubic good. This makes corporate behaviour clinically identical to that of the psychopath. This is why corporations need regulation.

    The irony is that corporations are usually better off long-term with good government regulation. The banking industry is an example. Boeing is another example. If Boeing was better regulated over the past fifteen years by the FAA, then Boeing would be better off today.

    But now Boeing is in a mess. Who knows, maybe it will do OK with the revamped 777 (which according to Reuters information is coming soon).

  8. keesje

    The total 787 story is covered and traceable on internet, by everybody. All the rush, dissidents, public statements, its all under our fingertips.

    My gut feeling is the unlaying root cause lays a decade back. The 9-11 trauma, with or against us, Airbus taking over #1spot, A380, tanker fraud

    A leap forward was required and everyone rallied behind the Boeing flag to show them, using world class innovation and american excellence, restoring the greatest.

  9. marple

    What do Enron, CASA, European “beef”, B787s, Qantas and NSW coal mining leases have in common? Self regulation is also the descriptor for taking laxatives; and the results of doing either to excess are excrement.

  10. Alex

    Well said, Ben! Even more generally, I think there is a general lack of appreciation and understanding of the need for assessment and review by expert, professional and DISINTERESTED (look it up, people!) parties.

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