WASHINGTON — Federal regulators let Boeing write the safety conditions for the problematic battery system in its beleaguered 787 “Dreamliner,” prescribe how to test it and carry out those tests itself, according to testimony and documents released at a hearing Tuesday.
As airlines prepare to resume flying the 787 after a three-month grounding, the National Transportation Safety Board is looking at how the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing and the company’s subcontractors tested and approved the 787’s lithium ion batteries, and whether the government grants aircraft makers too much leeway when it comes to safety.
Batteries aboard two 787s failed less than two weeks apart in January, causing a fire aboard one plane and smoke in another. The root cause of those two incidents is still unknown.
“We are here to understand why the 787 experienced unexpected battery failures following a design program led by one of the world’s leading manufacturers and a certification process that is well respected throughout the international aviation community,” NTSB’s Chairman Deborah Hersman said at the opening of a two-day board hearing. Officials with the FAA, Boeing and Boeing subcontractors responsible for the battery system were scheduled to testify.
The 787, Boeing’s newest and most technologically advanced plane, is the first airliner to make extensive use of lithium-ion batteries. Since the FAA doesn’t have safety regulations for the use of lithium batteries as installed equipment in planes, Boeing proposed special safety conditions the plane should have to meet. Those were effectively the same requirements FAA ultimately set for the battery system in 2007, according to documents released at the hearing.
To save manpower, the FAA designates employees of aircraft makers to oversee the safety testing of new planes. Every item that is part of an airplane, down to its nuts and bolts, must be certified as safe before the FAA approves that type of plane as safe for flight. Boeing received FAA safety certification for the 787 in August 2011.