“Our task now is to see if enough — and appropriate — layers of defense and adequate checks were built into the design, certification and manufacturing of this battery,” Hersman said.
The ultramodern jet marked a departure from traditional manufacturing processes. It was designed using ultra-light composite materials instead of traditional metal, promising improved energy efficiency and enhanced passenger comfort.
It also ushered in big changes at Boeing, bringing in many new suppliers that were overseen under the FAA’s revised self-certification model. In the case of the 787, the FAA issued more than three dozen “special conditions,” or regulations for “a novel or unusual design feature.”
That included the lithium-ion batteries that have caused problems with the 787s. The FAA noted that the batteries have “certain failure, operational, and maintenance characteristics” that differ from types used in existing aircraft. In certifying the batteries as being ready to fly, Boeing said it expected an overheating incident that caused smoke to happen once in 10 million flight hours for the fleet. The rash of incidents that grounded the 787 happened with fewer than 100,000 flight hours logged.
Hersman questioned whether the self- certification model at the FAA is working.
“You can delegate some of the action, but you can’t delegate responsibility,” said Hersman, whose agency makes safety recommendations that generally carry weight with lawmakers, though the safety board does not set policy itself.
For its part, Boeing is continuing to work with NTSB and FAA officials to identify a fix for the 787’s battery and get the aircraft back into regular service. The company says it is also willing to revisit and strengthen oversight.
“We are working corroboratively to address questions about our testing and compliance with certification standards, and we will not hesitate to make changes that lead to improved testing processes and products,” Boeing said in a statement.
If the NTSB does determine that flaws in the certification process played some role in the fleet’s battery problems, aides for lawmakers in both parties say the policy would be a likely target for changes in future legislation.
It’s unlikely, though, that any changes to the current inspection system would come quickly. Congress just enacted a four-year reauthorization (PL 112-95) for the FAA a year ago. It ordered the agency to further streamline its certification processes beginning this month “in a manner than supports and enables the development of new products and technologies and the global competitiveness of the United States aviation industry.”