Lithium-ion batteries commonly used in portable electronic devices, like cell phones, laptops and cameras, have commanded their share of attention in air transport, but it is the application of this technology in the Boeing 787 that has dominated aviation safety news for two months. As this issue of AeroSafety World is going to press, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and Japan Transport Safety Board are continuing to investigate the two battery-related incidents that occurred on 787s operated by Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA) in January. On March 12, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved Boeing’s certification plan for a redesigned 787 battery system and the OEM started testing the system.
According to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood: “This comprehensive series of tests will show us whether the proposed battery improvements will work as described. We won’t allow the plane to return to service unless we’re satisfied that the new design ensures the safety of the aircraft and its passengers.”
I’m not going to wade into the pool of speculation about what happened on board the JAL and ANA flights in question. Nor am I going to venture a guess on how long testing of the redesigned battery system may take or when FAA is going to lift its grounding of the 787.
What I do want to address is the promise from Secretary LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta that FAA would review the 787 certification process. The Foundation agrees that this is a necessary step to ensure there were no oversights in making sure the aircraft design and operation are safe. However, this is not the only step the FAA needs to take. What also needs to be accomplished is an evaluation of FAA airworthiness-certification processes to make sure they are keeping up with modern-technology aircraft.
During the certification process, the FAA doesn’t have enough organic resources to monitor and approve the building of the aircraft. In order to move the process along, the FAA uses “designees.” These are individuals who work for the manufacturer but wear two hats. One is for the company function they perform, the other is for the FAA, to certify that what has been done by the company will be certified. This system works well and is used in other areas such as pilot training. My concern is about the standards the designees are required to meet. Have the standards been upgraded to reflect that designees must not only have the knowledge, but the experience, to do the job?
The FAA has a good system and reviewing this certification process will be another step toward taking the best and doing better.