Dreamliner Woes Expose FAA's Potential Weak Spots The investigation into the Boeing 787 has widened to include not just its batteries and electronics, but also the Federal Aviation Administration's certification process. Chronically understaffed, the agency often relies on manufacturers themselves to assist in the testing of new planes.
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Dreamliner Woes Expose FAA's Potential Weak Spots

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Dreamliner Woes Expose FAA's Potential Weak Spots

Dreamliner Woes Expose FAA's Potential Weak Spots

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

It's been a week since FAA officials grounded Boeing's newest jet, the 787. Today, the head of the FAA said he couldn't speculate on when a review of the plane would end. Investigators in the U.S. and in Japan remained perplexed as to why batteries on two planes suffered serious failures. As NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, Boeing, the 787 and the certification process used to approve it are all now under intense scrutiny.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Everyone working on the 787 knew that lithium-ion batteries pack an enormous amount of power into the small package and require special care. They have a history of fires. Still, Boeing and government regulators thought they had the 787 batteries under control.

But a little more than two weeks ago, a battery on a brand-new Japan Airlines jet caught fire. And less than 48 hours later, a battery on an All Nippon Airlines 787 overheated and sustained major damage. The pilot on that flight had to make an emergency landing.

JOHN GOGLIA: There's at least three things on the top of the pile of things to look at.

KAUFMAN: The first one, suggests John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board is, was there a design or manufacturing defect in the batteries themselves? It appears the two batteries may have come from the same production batch. Goglia says investigators are looking at other parts of the electrical system too.

GOGLIA: They're looking at the battery charger, the circuitry and the protections the charging system has. And they're looking at the electronics system in general for the airplane because it could be possible that additional current was coming in from another source on the airplane.

KAUFMAN: Boeing outsourced the design, engineering and production of the 787 to an unprecedented degree. Sixty-five percent of the plane is not made by Boeing. The batteries, for example, were made by a Japanese company as part of the electrical system supplied by a French firm. And attorney Kenneth Quinn of the Pillsbury law firm and a former chief counsel of the FAA says...

KENNETH QUINN: It's always a difficult challenge to ensure that subcontractors are implementing the same high standards for quality assurance and quality control in their individual components.

KAUFMAN: There's another quality issue, too, and this one involves the FAA's certification process itself. While there's no evidence that the recent incidents can be linked to insufficient oversight, people are asking just how does the approval process work. The FAA is responsible for certifying new planes, but the agency is chronically understaffed and, to some extent, lacking depth and expertise in some of the latest technologies. John McGraw, the former deputy director of flight standards at the agency explains that the FAA relies heavily on manufacturers such as Boeing.

JOHN MCGRAW: The thing that people don't understand is the FAA does not generate any of the data for any airplane that's certificated. It's all generated by the manufacturer.

KAUFMAN: McGraw, now an aviation consultant, explains that certain Boeing employees are aligned to sign off on some performance tests on behalf of the FAA. The idea of delegation has been around for decades, though beginning in about 2005, manufacturers were given more authority. Still, McGraw says much of what is delegated is relatively routine work.

MCGRAW: The more cutting-edge, latest-technology systems and items are reserved for the FAA to actually get involved with.

KAUFMAN: And the battery was in that category. Overall, the FAA says its technical experts logged about 200,000 hours testing and reviewing the 787's design. The Federal Aviation Administration is now conducting a high-level review of the plane's electrical system and its own role in certifying the new jet. Meanwhile, Boeing is continuing to produce the airplane but is not delivering any new ones. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.

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