Defending the 787 and FAA

One of the failed batteries.
One of the failed batteries.

In the past, we have regularly been fairly critical of Boeing’s 787 battery problems and indeed, much to do with the plane in general.

Furthermore, we are uncomfortable with the FAA’s approved ‘fix’ that has been put in place.  It ignores the underlying causes of the battery problems, and was rushed into place prior to allowing the NTSB to make suggestions as to the problem’s cause and appropriate solutions.

But today we find ourselves in the unexpected position of defending both Boeing and the FAA.

First, let’s paint the picture as it has now become.  Our three points of greatest concern are :

  • The root cause of the two battery fires remains unidentified.  Maybe there are some other electrical system issues that might subsequently manifest themselves in other forms, too.
  • We have not been clearly advised about what increased level of risk to safe flight may result from an inoperable battery.  Does it matter or not matter if either or both batteries (safely) fail in mid-flight?
  • The accepted battery safety box solution seeks to reassure us that if/when the batteries might again burst into flames, the fire won’t threaten the safety of the plane.  But, as far as we’re aware, this  hasn’t actually been proven by any actual in-flight testing of burning batteries on a 787.

We do not feel the FAA was sufficiently participative in the initial battery approval process, which now self-evidently failed to create a safe battery system, we’re concerned that the fix the FAA has now accepted has not been sufficiently tested to guarantee its efficacy, and we’re very surprised that the FAA has not restricted the plane’s approval for three hour extended range operations (ETOPS), approval which usually requires some two years of demonstrated safe operations as a prerequisite.

But, as we write this, the 787 fleet of 50 planes are steadily returning to the air, Boeing has resumed delivering new planes to airlines, and although there has already been another electrical problem reported on one of them, it did not involve the batteries and was not a critical issue risking the safety of the plane.

Maybe we are wrong to expect a more thorough appreciation of the battery problem and a higher standard of solution.  The thing is, while we have an overview appreciation of the issue and some personal feelings about the subject of aviation safety, we’re not an expert.  All we can really do is expose the issue as clearly as possible and ensure that the FAA is aware of the public interest and that its actions are made public.  The FAA is accountable to our government and therefore, indirectly, to ourselves, and if there is clear evidence of inappropriate approvals being granted, then our redress is presumably through the Congressional oversight route (or possibly the Administrative Procedure Act).

But is this being too passive?  Do we all, as passengers – as the people who could be on a plane if it subsequently crashes and burns – have some right as an affected party to participate in the original airplane evaluation and approval processes conducted by the FAA?

Conventional wisdom might argue that we don’t – and shouldn’t – have this right.  The FAA is there as our proxy.  The FAA has the specific skills to evaluate airplanes, and has the formal processes and procedures that provide certainty for airplane designers/manufacturers and airlines to know what needs to be done to obtain certification.

In theory, it sets objective standards and then measures compliance with them.  If ordinary people were allowed to participate in the approval process, things could become unmanageably complex and outcomes unpredictable.  Should the same people who shriek at the TSA for allowing tiny pocket knives onto planes now be setting the standards for airplane design and safety, too?  Or, if you’re on the other side of the pocket knives on planes issue, should the same people who lackadaisically would be happy to see passengers with knives of any size on planes be the ones we delegate safety making decisions too?

Or – worst case scenario of all – should we have a public panel in equal measures supporting and opposing each and every issue, and unable to find a middle ground to compromise on?

While we can’t actively participate in the approval process, there are some legal maneuvers that might be open to concerned people if they feel the FAA has not appropriately discharged its responsibilities and has incorrectly approved an airplane as safe.

As a side-bar comment, we should point out that proving an airplane is safe (or, for that matter, proving it to be dangerous) is a very difficult thing to do.  It is really only when a plane crashes and burns that one can start to ascertain the reality of weaknesses and risks, and even then, determining the at-fault components and systems and the interplay between different aspects of the plane’s operation and maintenance and everything is both complex and surprisingly subjective.  Just like computer problems are sometimes difficult to establish as being hardware or software based, plane problems are sometimes hard to categorize as design or maintenance issues.

Proving a plane (that has not crashed repeatedly) to be unsafe is a bit like proving medical malpractice in a case where the doctor’s patients are all alive and well.

Anyway, with all that as background, this week saw the group Flyers Rights blow the dust off its cape and leap into the fray, by petitioning the FAA to reduce the 787’s ETOPS certification down from three to two hours.  There is a copy of their supporting note on their website, and if you go read it, there’s one thing I urge you to do.

The note seems to be fairly well written, and bases its reasoning on a series of attached exhibits recording the opinions of people apparently expert on the matter.  But only Exhibit 2, from a person with background in batteries, is arguably relevant, and while that expert expresses concern about the battery safety, and admits to knowing little about the Boeing fix, he says he is pleased that the battery safety box design would vent the gases from a battery explosion/fire out of the plane.

Exhibit 3 is a series of internet article clips and an email sent by the cited professor to a group of people in which he says he does not know the answer to the questions he raises!

This is hardly compelling testimony, and we gather that the gentleman in question did not know and was surprised to learn that his email is now being offered to the FAA in support of Flyers Rights’ claims.

One wonders why Flyers Rights didn’t at the very least get his permission, and perhaps ask him for a more directly on topic commentary in a proper legal affidavit form.

Exhibit 4, while offered in support of their claim about the inadequacy of Boeing’s fix, contains nothing more than an internet clip that was published before the Boeing fix was announced, quoting a person who was merely criticizing the original battery approval process and totally silent about the fix.

As such, it seems to have no relevance to their claims at all, and it is impossible to understand how they felt that comments about the original battery certification process, which incontrovertibly was flawed, have any bearing on the (at the time not yet even disclosed) future fix to the battery problem that Boeing would subsequently propose.

As for exhibit 5 – oh, wait.  There is no exhibit 5.  The next exhibit is number six (and even more totally irrelevant to their pleading).

Most of all, just about everything Flyers Rights say is off topic.  They are concerned with the battery reliability, and while we agree it is a matter to be concerned about, Boeing has essentially conceded that the batteries might be unreliable and might fail again.  Boeing’s fix was not to make the batteries guaranteed to be safe.  Its fix was to make the consequences of any subsequent battery failure benign rather than threatening to the safety of the plane.

The material from Flyers Rights does not seem to address this – surely central and most important – point at all.

Flyers Rights calls on the FAA to create a new advisory panel consisting of battery safety experts plus representatives of passengers and fight crew organizations, with the panel being charged with making recommendations (although it isn’t clear exactly on what they would be recommending).

Do we really want the drunken passenger one row over from you, the rude nasty flight attendant who has just called in a police complaint about you, and the passive pilot up front who agrees to make an emergency landing so you can be hauled off the plane by police as a suspected terrorist to be the people who know sit on a panel advising the FAA about battery safety?

What sort of expert advice could they offer?  Isn’t this already the responsibility of the NTSB (which, in our opinion, does an excellent job of such things)?

Noting also the FAA’s disdain for NTSB advice, how persuasive would the mindless fears of a passenger who may be scared of flying to start with, and a flight attendant who is terrified of passengers with pocket knives actually be?  How assertive about anything would a pilot who lacks the fortitude to stand up to the outrageous demands of his flight attendants be?

Most of all, what is the point of the whole bureaucratic process?  An advisory panel’s recommendations hardly carry much persuasive weight.

We continue to be concerned about the 787’s battery issues.  We’d like to see a clear explanation of what the impacts are on the continued safe operation of the plane if either or both of its onboard batteries fail, and we’d like to see much greater testing and proof of the efficacy of the battery safety box solution that Boeing has created.

But it does seem clear to us that the point of fixation for Flyers Rights – the underlying safety of the battery itself – is not central to the problem as it now remains.  Everyone has agreed the batteries might fail again, that’s no longer the issue.  The issue surely should be what could happen if – when – the batteries next fail.

Beyond that, we are concerned at the suggestion that non-technical passenger rights groups should be afforded a voice in technical determinations of airplane functionality.  The displayed inability of Flyers Rights to grasp the reality of the current situation seems to speak convincingly against their claim that they should be afforded a voice at the table.

2 thoughts on “Defending the 787 and FAA”

  1. Let the FAA and Boeing do their work which involves much more than the average armchair expert knows. Too many have bashed the FAA and Boeing without knowing the extent of testing and engineering that went on for months.
    Some of the crowd it seems just like to read their posts and the more vitriol it was, the better. I do not claim to be an aviation engineer but when I read some of the modifications made, it made me think how some them have applied to automotive electrical systems and overheated batteries which I have had some experience with in the past.
    It seems to be in vogue for everyone to have his or her voice heard even when they have no working knowledge on the subject. Too much time on their hands,

  2. lithium batteries are an excellent choice of low weight and high capacity. There is one glitch. That is that the batteries need to be designed in a system that monitors the individual pile’s temp. Having sold this battery type for over 10 years to the video business, I observed that the electronics that control the battery has to be able to switch off a battery cell if it get’s too hot when charging or discharging.
    Apple had the same problem with it’s early portable’s lithium battery powered laptops about a decade ago. It is the same problem Boeing has. If you don’t spend the money to design a really rugged charge/discharge circuit, the battery can go into a melt down (fire) condition.
    If you spend the money and design circuitry that can really control the individual cell’s temp, they should last a lifetime. (well over 1k charge, discharge cycles)
    Most batteries are designed to be a backup power for the airplane’s two electrical systems. Bus A and bus B are designed as a redundancy. Most also have a wind powered alternator that can be used as an.emergency backup should both bus’s fail. This can keep the plane in the air until they can get to the closest airport and do an emergency (read hard and fast!) landing. Bad part… you have one chance to get it right. Once the air flow slows down for landing, the alternator also slows down.

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