FAA seeks to avoid Dreamliner repeat by tightening supply chain regulation
An All Nippon Airways (ANA) of Japan 787 Dreamliner jet sits idle on the tarmac parking at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, January 17, 2013. Anthony Bolante / Reuters
The FAA and Boeing are trying to put the best spin they can on shortcomings in the certification of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. A more rigorous review of the supply chain indeed is called for, but we haven’t heard anything yet that inspires great confidence.
U.S. regulators want to tighten oversight of aircraft-industry suppliers, such as the subcontractors that helped Boeing Co. design and build the 787’s batteries, to reflect lessons learned from the plane’s grounding.
The Federal Aviation Administration also plans to seek outside reviews of its certification of new aircraft designs, Associate Administrator Margaret Gilligan said in testimony prepared for a hearing today before a House transportation panel.
“The FAA has determined that we need to spend more time overseeing communication and ensuring a clear line of accountability of all required changes down the supplier chain,” Gilligan said in the testimony prepared for the aviation subcommittee’s hearing.
Boeing’s Dreamliner, which uses carbon fiber to save weight and requires more electricity to gain efficiency, was grounded for more than three months this year after lithium-ion batteries on two of the planes overheated and spewed fumes.
The Chicago-based manufacturer used an unprecedented number of subcontractors to build parts of the Dreamliner to reduce financial risks on the new model. That arrangement led in part to 787 program delays as some contractors fell behind schedule.
While Gilligan provided some hints about what the agency has concluded from a review of how the 787 was certified, she didn’t spell out the findings. The review began in January.
GS Yuasa Corp. of Kyoto, Japan, makes the plane’s battery packs. The battery charger is manufactured by Tucson, Arizona- based Securaplane Technologies Inc., a unit of Meggitt Plc, based at Bournemouth airport in Christchurch, England. Both suppliers sell the products to Thales SA, based in Neuilly-sur- Seine, France, which provides them to Boeing.
Parts of the aircraft’s electrical system, which interacts with the batteries, were built by United Technologies Corp.’s Hamilton Sundstrand division, now called UTC Aerospace Systems.
The FAA said April 19 it had approved battery improvements proposed by Boeing that would let the 50 Dreamliners in global fleets return to service. The changes limit the chances of batteries overheating, insulate individual cells from each other and encase the powerpack in a fire-proof enclosure.
The Dreamliner was grounded Jan. 16 after the second battery incident.
Firefighters in Boston took an hour and 40 minutes to control a battery spewing flames on a Japan Airlines 787 that had just landed Jan. 7. Nine days later, an All Nippon Airways Co. 787 made an emergency landing at Takamatsu Airport in Japan after one of its batteries overheated.
The two carriers, which have 27 of the planes, returned their Dreamliners to service May 31 after Japanese regulators signed off on the redesign and fixes were completed. Boeing has delivered seven more of the model since the grounding was lifted for a total of 57, according to its website.
Boeing fell about 0.5 percent to $101.75 a share yesterday in New York. The manufacturer has gained 35 percent this year.
While acknowledging flaws in the battery, Gilligan and Boeing’s chief engineer on the 787, Mike Sinnett, defended the certification process in their prepared hearing testimony.
“A great airplane has returned to the sky and I am confident it will serve our airline customers and the traveling public extremely well for decades to come,” Sinnett said.
No one was hurt in either battery incident and damage was limited, which resulted from Boeing’s stringent safety standards, Sinnett said.
“From that standpoint, what happened in Boston and Japan in January demonstrated a central tenet of our design philosophy,” he said.
Gilligan said it was appropriate for her agency to use Boeing employees to perform initial approvals of some aircraft designs. The use of those workers for some of the battery certification is under review by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which is examining the Boston fire.
“Limiting the use of technical experts because of who they work for is the equivalent of imposing limitations on problem solving,” Gilligan said. “That is not a limitation that FAA would ever support.”
The 787 grounding, the first in the U.S. that wasn’t a response to a fatal crash, was justified because the plane was still untested, Gilligan said.
“The accident rate for commercial aircraft operations is at an all-time low,” she said. “Neither the public nor the FAA has the tolerance for that accident rate increasing.”
– With assistance from Andrea Rothman in Toulouse and Robert Wall in London. Editors: Bernard Kohn, Ted Bunker
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