Friday, May 23, 2014

Dreamliner's Dramatic Life Mimics Woody Allen's Art

In the Woody Allen movie, Annie Hall, an estranged couple is seen in separate visits to their therapists answering the question; "How often do the two of you have sex?"

"Aways," the woman says, "three times a week." 

"Never," the man says, "three times a week."

When it comes to the way the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board see the question of the "safety" of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner the same flexibility in perception is on display. How well-contained are the risks on the world's newest wide body airliner? 

"Very" says the FAA. 

"Not so much," says the NTSB.

In March, while the world was preoccupied with the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, the FAA released with little fanfare, the report capping its year long review of the design, certification and manufacturing of the Boeing 787. The plane was "fundamentally sound" the paper's writers determined. "Deficiencies" were typical of any new airplane and "are being addressed or have been addressed" by Boeing and the FAA.

That's not the way the NTSB sees it, though, as Thursday's safety recommendations and the accompanying letter make clear.

The folks investigating the two thermal events on Japanese airliners that grounded the entire 50 plane Dreamliner fleet for nearly four months last year take a more circumspect approach.  "Boeing underestimated the more serious effects" of problems inside and outside of the novel new batteries it decided to use on the Boeing 787.

The safety board is talking about the cobalt oxide lithium ion used for the two large batteries on the plane, that is the same recipe used in those laptops and cell phones that spontaneously ignited in the mid 2000s.  The fires occurred in public places like airports and videos were posted on YouTube.

The batteries were the subject of the world's largest industrial recall.

Investigator Matt Fox, Photo courtesy NTSB
Despite that, Boeing and its subcontractors went ahead with a plan to use lithium ion batteries in the air, requesting a special condition from the FAA.  As the NTSB describes the process, Boeing tested the cells it planned to use on the Dreamliner by poking them with nails then sitting back and recording the resulting fireworks.

There was no requirement that the plane maker conduct a holistic examination of what would happen to the entire contraption; not just the cells but the external wiring and battery case. When the safety board staffers conducted their own tests of how everything worked together, it wasn't pretty.

Which is why in its recommendation letter the board says that lithium ion battery tests "should replicate the battery installation on the aircraft (emphasis mine) and be conducted under conditions that produce the most severe outcome." Well, yeah, aren't they doing that already?
Apparently not. You may find that shocking. I know I do. But in the case of variable perspectives that got me thinking about Woody Allen's sexually mismatched characters, the FAA doesn't have a problem with it. 

Its 71 page report wraps up the whole Dreamliner review promised by then-Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood in January 2013, with a series of do-better-next-time fixes that are all about keeping more of an eye on the sub contractors.

During my coverage of MH370, I criticized that government for allowing Hishammuddin Hussein to oversee the handling of the investigation considering that Hishammuddin is the chief of the Malaysian Defence and Transportation departments. I asked how he could supervise a probe in which his own departments played a role.

We have a similar scenario with the FAA and Boeing conducting an examination of their own actions in the design, building and certification of the  Dreamliner. The committee was composed of committee of 13, six from the FAA and seven from Boeing who together and not surprisingly found "no flaws in the verification of the airplane."

The NTSB on the other hand criticizes the FAA for failing to reach out to independent experts years ago, to get another view of the wisdom of installing such persnickety chemistry as lithium ion batteries on a commercial aircraft. Even before concluding what caused the two Dreamliner battery events, the NTSB has made an important statement by acknowledging the way insularity distorts perspective and hinders safety.

When it comes to the Dreamliner design, the FAA and the NTSB do have very different perspectives. But unlike the couple in Annie Hall, both sides cannot be right.


Grumpy said...

Terrific Column, Christine! Probably your best. Those of us in the investigation business have known for years that FAA management has been in bed with the manufacturers. Same with the FAA "Safety" staff. IMHO the NTSB has been way too lenient over the years. One hopes that this marks a transition to a new set of *cojones* for the Safety Board.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Grumpy! This was an excellent, well written article. I believe that your use of the analogy from "Annie Hall" could not have been said any better. It is a perfect comparison and I hope that the pendulum of power between these two agencies swings over to the NTSB and that we never again allow commercial aviation public safety to be under the control of an agency that has clearly become intoxicated with the power and paybacks from the industry it governs.

The NTSB has consistently proven that they have the professionalism and passion to properly oversee the airline industry as well as the aircraft manufacturing companies. The men and women at the NTSB have seen and smelled the dead bodies, the burned out hulls, and the smell of jet fuel that remains long after they have gone home. Mary Schiavo was bang on!

wuzafan said...

what is not described, is the local environment that these batteries are in.
they are in the main electronic bay, located near the primary flight control computers.
and, since the 87 is an all-electric airplane, they provide the backup necessary to fly, if they lose an engine
if there is a high demand, then there is a large increase in the possibility of fire / explosion, and taking out the flight controls as well.
the NTSB did not want the 87's batteries to go forward, the FAA played ball with mcboeing, and let them go into production.