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FAA relied too much on Boeing for 787 safety tests: report

May 22, 2014, New York, N.Y. - The government failed to properly test the Boeing 787's lithium-ion batteries and relied too much on Boeing for technical expertise, a new report says.


May 22, 2014
By The Associated Press

The National Transportation Safety Board Thursday criticized the
process used by the Federal Aviation Administration to certify the new
jet in 2007. It also recommended that the FAA needed to look outside the
aviation industry for technical advice.

 

The report directly conflicts with the
FAA's own internal study released in March, which said the agency had
"effective processes in place to identify and correct issues that
emerged before and after certification."

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The 787 — also known as
the Dreamliner — is the first commercial jet to rely on rechargeable
lithium-ion batteries to power key systems. The batteries are lighter,
letting airlines save fuel. However, a January 2013 fire aboard a 787
parked at a gate in Boston broke out when one of a battery cell
experienced an uncontrollable increase in temperature and pressure,
known as a thermal runaway. Nobody was injured, but that fire — and a
subsequent smoke condition on a separate plane nine days later — led to a
worldwide grounding of the Dreamliner fleet.

 

Boeing subsequently redesigned the
ventilation system around the batteries and the planes resumed flying.
There are now 140 Dreamliners operating around the world. Another 891
have been ordered by airlines.

 

In its report Thursday, the safety board
says the problems go back to September 2004, when Boeing first told
aviation regulators of its plans to use lithium-ion batteries on the
787. The FAA was forced to create the first-ever requirements for use of
lithium-ion batteries on commercial jets.

 

One of the nine
requirements the FAA came up with was that the "design of the
lithium-ion batteries must preclude the occurrence of self-sustaining,
uncontrolled increases in temperature or pressure." In other words, no
thermal runaways.

 

When Boeing and the FAA worked together
to set up certification tests in March 2006, they considered the smoke a
battery fire might cause but, according to the safety board's report,
"Boeing underestimated the more serious effects of an internal short
circuit." In January 2007, the FAA approved the testing plan proposed by
Boeing. It did not include testing for such short circuits.

 

To avoid such oversights again, the NTSB
suggests that the FAA needs to look outside the aviation industry for
expertise when approving a new technology. For instance, the Department
of Energy has done extensive testing on lithium-ion batteries. If the
FAA had reached out to the Energy Department or other experts, the
report says, the FAA could have recognized that its tests "were
insufficient to appropriately evaluate the risks" of a battery short
circuit.

 

The safety board
recommends that the FAA reviews its lithium-ion battery testing process.
Also, any certification of new technology should involve "independent
and neutral experts outside of the FAA and an aircraft manufacturer."

 

The FAA has 90 days to respond.