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air safety

Mar 3, 2013

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

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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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