Congressional Oversight of the B-787 Situation is Premature

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ARTICLE: Senate to examine FAA approval of Dreamliner battery


The Senate Aviation Subcommittee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee have both issued informal notices that they intend to hold hearings to examine U.S. aviation safety oversight and the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to allow Boeing Co. to use highly flammable lithium-ion batteries on board the 787 Dreamliner.

There is intense interest by the public, and consequently extensive press coverage as well as investigations by both the FAA and the NTSB.

Congress’ eagerness to initiate hearings quickly is understandable but  premature. Two Members seem to understand that the timing is wrong. Why? Because there has been no public utterance by a government official or a Boeing executive that they know what the problem may be.

A hearing in the next few weeks would cause the relevant witnesses, who obviously are also involved in the search for a solution, to leave that urgent work. The people to be called to appear before the legislators, at this point in the design review process, would include the following entities that are heavily engaged in the search for answers:

  • The sub-sub-contractor to answer questions about its manufacture of the battery;
  • The sub-contractor to respond to inquiries as to how it installed that element into its subsystem;
  • The manufacturer to explain how that subsystem was integrated into the aircraft;
  • Those involved in the wiring, circuit boards and other battery-related external components which may yet be determined to be part of the problem;
  • The airlines to recount their operating of the B-787 with the battery;
  • The NTSB to review its investigatory actions;
  • The FAA to review its investigatory actions (note the redundancy);
  • The FAA (probably another set of officials) to discuss the certification of the B-787;
  • The FAA (again another set of staffers) to relate the history of lithium ion batteries as cargo; and last but not least
  • The normal host of independent experts who all too often populate these panels and who are given to making the pithy (and sometimes misleading) quotes for the press.

After several hours of questions propounded by the Members (written by “their staffers,” very few of who are aeronautical engineers or regulatory cognoscenti), very little value will be gained. Assuredly a clever witness will make an observation (based on little knowledge of the actual facts) and that phrase will likely divert resources to false targets (like the missile in the TWA 800).

There will come a time when a formal notice for a hearing on the B-787, the lithium ion battery and the FAA certification process will be appropriate. Clearly something did not function properly per design and as certificated; when the facts and the cause factors are determined (the certainty of either is always relative and rarely absolute), then the Congress should/must call a hearing.

Today, and until the range of potential issues is narrowed to a few, is NOT the time to hold a Congressional oversight on the B-787.

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