IF one thing is clear after this week’s National Transportation Safety Board hearings on the certification of the Boeing 787’s lithium-ion battery, it is that the Federal Aviation Administration and the industry it regulates share a cozy relationship that sometimes takes a front seat to safety. This relationship contributed to the grounding of the 787 Dreamliner in January and the astonishing swiftness with which the airplane was approved to return to commercial flight.
As a former chairman of the safety board, I know firsthand that effective government oversight helps prevent fatal airplane accidents. For decades, the F.A.A. has used what it calls “designated airworthiness representatives” to certify that aircraft meet government safety standards. They were experts selected and supervised by the agency, even if they worked for the manufacturer. But in 2005, the F.A.A. changed the process of selecting those designees, ruling that aircraft manufacturers who qualified under the new procedures could choose their own employees to certify their planes. The distinction is important, because it suggests a slide toward industry self-certification.
This laissez-faire certification system would save the aviation industry nearly $25 million between 2006 and 2015, the F.A.A. said at the time — a pittance when compared with Boeing’s $81 billion in revenue for 2012. It is no coincidence that the committee that helped develop this process was made up of industry members. Essentially, aircraft makers persuaded the F.A.A. to let them certify their own aircraft so they could save money.
Problems with the plane’s lithium-ion batteries emerged about 14 months after the 787 entered commercial service in November 2011, underscoring the folly of this policy. As we learned from this week’s hearings, the agency let Boeing help write the safety standards, develop the testing protocol and then perform those tests. In 2008, a year after standards for the battery system were approved with special conditions on the containment and venting of the batteries, stricter industry guidelines for these batteries were released. But the F.A.A. did not require the 787 to meet those new guidelines.
The potential for these batteries to catch fire was well known. In 2011, one of these batteries on a jet built by Cessna started smoking. The F.A.A. ordered Cessna to remove the batteries, and Cessna replaced them with less combustible nickel-cadmium batteries. Incredibly, the F.A.A. failed to absorb the lessons of this experience.
Boeing initially estimated that there was the potential for one battery failure incident in 10 million flight hours. As it turned out, smoke and fire broke out in batteries on two separate 787’s in just the first 52,000 flight hours. Even Boeing’s chief engineer on the 787, Mike Sinnett, acknowledged to the N.T.S.B. that one of the battery tests had been inadequate and was not “conservative enough.”
Now the 787 has been grounded for months, the F.A.A. has lost face, and Boeing has been losing $50 million a week on a plane that was supposed to demonstrate innovative aircraft design and help the United States recapture its onetime dominance of the world aircraft market.
Given all of that, the F.A.A.’s recent decision to approve Boeing’s plans to fix the lithium-ion battery seems shortsighted and represents a complete failure of government oversight. It is puzzling that the agency was so quick on its feet to accommodate Boeing in recertifying the safety of the airplane, without even knowing the root cause of the battery problem.
And where has Congress been? The first hearing on Capitol Hill on the 787 was held just one week ago. But some of the testimony was very telling. The Government Accountability Office questioned the F.A.A.’s ability to maintain the up-to-date knowledge necessary to approve new equipment, and the Department of Transportation’s inspector general criticized the agency for failing to ensure that personnel designated by aircraft manufacturers to certify their aircraft or components were competent to do so.
Congress needs to take a closer look at the F.A.A.’s practices and procedures to make sure that safety is the top priority, and should overhaul the agency to provide more direct government oversight as new aviation technologies are introduced.
We enjoy the safest commercial aviation system in the world. But what about tomorrow? After the N.T.S.B. hearings, this question is more important than ever.
James E. Hall, a safety and crisis management consultant, was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001.