Aviation Subcommittee Hearing on Lithium-ion Battery Incident is Constructive and not Sensational

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ARTICLE: Hearing on Lessons Learned from the Boeing 787 Incidents

It is a natural response to a crisis for Congress to emphasize what went wrong; sensational information attracts high press exposure and such attention helps the Member gain voter recognition back home. The B-787 incident would constitute a prime target for a high profile hearing.

Today’s Aviation Subcommittee of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, thanks to the leadership of Chairman LoBiondo and Ranking Minority Member Larson, DID NOT follow the expected path. Commendations to both of them and T&I Chair Shuster for taking the high road and focusing on lessons to be learned rather than blame!

The high quality of the content of this hearing began with the memorandum summarizing the subject matter of the hearing written by the subcommittee’s Staff Director, Holly Woodruff Lyons, and her team. The seven page document carefully recites the technical details of the “incidents” and articulates, with great insight, how the FAA certification process really works. In particular, the memorandum includes a very instructive diagram (p. 4, Figure 2) of all of the steps and participants in the FAA review. The FAA prepared the figure and it should be included in all textbooks or articles which attempt to define this complex, iterative assessment of airworthiness. Finally, the hearing memorandum clarifies the technical engineering analysis of the lithium- ion battery.

The initial statements of the Chairman, the Ranking Member and the Full Committee Chair further reflect the contemplative tone of the hearing. The understanding of the issues of the hearing by the members of the Subcommittee was further evidenced by the quality of the questions asked by those Representatives in attendance (Meadows [R-NC], Williams [R-TX], Ribble [R-WI], Johnson [D-TX], Davis [R-IL], Duncan [R-TN]).

Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, Peggy Gilligan’s testimony reviewed the history and standards used for large aircraft certification. She made it clear that there were lessons learned from the B-787 incident, but she pointed out that the system worked — an unpredicted, improbable failure was contained and the aircraft safely landed. Her testimony explained the intricacies of special conditions, designees and the AD process.

The Chairman asked this witness about the current and past safety of the B-787; Ms. Gilligan’s answer was reassuring and thorough. He also asked her whether there are any lessons learned, particularly as to the adequacy of the standards for the lithium-ion battery. The FAA’s top safety official stated that, in the AD process, new tests for the lithium-ion battery were identified and implemented. Perhaps the FAA’s biggest lesson was to extend the agency’s outreach in its defining of special conditions. She acknowledged that in defining future special conditions, the FAA can/should determine if there are other users of the product/system be assessed and include them in the process.

The Ranking Member inquired about the timeline of the Secretary/Administrator’s review of certification; to which Ms. Gilligan responded that the goal is late summer. Her answer also mentioned the NTSB’s review of the same subject matter. Ms. Gilligan was deferential as to that independent review. Rep. Larson asked about self-certification and the Associate Administrator explained how that is a misnomer. They also had a useful dialogue about the new standards applicable to the lithium-ion battery.

Several other Members asked Ms. Gilligan good questions and the FAA chief safety officer responded to their satisfaction. Rep. Meadows asked whether the NTSB rules on statements during an “incident” (as opposed to “accident”) were too restrictive and should Congress modify them to allow freer discourse. The Associate Administrator effectively dodged that question which was subtly directed at an NTSB castigation of Boeing for a press release issued during the investigation.

Mike Sinnett, Chief Engineer for the 787 Program at Boeing, repeated many of the points of Ms. Gilligan’s testimony. His statement drew fewer questions and the few that were posed resulted in answers very similar to the FAA responses.

In summary, it was clear that Congress was comfortable with the FAA’s and Boeing’s responses to the B-787 Lithium-ion battery incident. The oddity was that NTSB Chair Hersman, who was very visible during the earlier stages of the investigation, was not invited to testify.

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