May 22, 2013
Dreamliner raises questions over industry self-inspection
Eight years ago, US regulators substantially increased their dependence on the aircraft industry to help keep flying safe.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it would no longer directly manage routine inspection of design and manufacturing. Instead, it would focus on overseeing a self-policing program executed by the manufacturers themselves through more than 3,000 of their employees assigned to review safety on behalf of the FAA.
These so-called designees had existed for decades, but the FAA had vetted and controlled them. Under the new system, companies chose and managed them, to the point where the FAA even had trouble rejecting those they felt were unsuitable for the job, according to one government watchdog.
As the drama of the overheating lithium-ion batteries on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner unfolds, that relationship is coming under intense scrutiny.
No evidence has surfaced that the designee system is responsible for the battery problem that has prompted regulators to temporarily ban the plane from the skies. The story has raised the question, however, whether the regulator hands over too much power to the industry.
"This is an occupation with a built-in conflict of interest," said Gordon Mandell, a retired FAA certification engineer.
With Boeing doing about 95 percent of its own inspections, adds Mary Schiavo, former Department of Transportation inspector general, "it's kind of do-it-yourself." The situation was not unique to Boeing, she said. "There are places around the world that saw an FAA inspector once, maybe five years ago, and that's it."
Boeing's new ultra-modern carbon-composite jet has been grounded around the world for six weeks as the National Transportation Safety Board leads an investigation into two battery incidents, joined by the FAA. Both agencies are also looking into the 787 certification process.
"We need to understand what tests were done and who was certifying those tests, and again how they were verified - not just by Boeing, but by the regulator as well," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said on February 8, referring to the battery and other key parts made in a long, global supply chain.
At the broadest level, even some supporters of the designee process are asking whether the FAA is up to the task of effectively overseeing the system.
Among them is Ken Mead, another former DOT inspector general and a veteran of investigating the FAA. "The questions I'd want answers to are: Does the FAA have the right people with the right expertise to make sure the FAA is in a position to critically second-guess? And have they critically reviewed the approval process so this does not happen again?" he said.
The FAA's defense of its abilities and approach is unwavering. "Some have asked the question whether the FAA has the expertise needed to oversee the Dreamliner's cutting edge technology. The answer is yes, we have the ability to establish rigorous safety standards and to make sure that aircraft meet them," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in an industry speech on January 23. "The way to enhance safety is to keep the lines of communication open between business and government."
The FAA and Boeing both say the FAA is better off managing the system and picking out high-risk areas on which to concentrate. It lacks the resources to manage every individual and inspect every part, they say, and industry has a strong incentive to cooperate - unsafe products jeopardize business. They point out that FAA staff invested more than 200,000 hours over eight years certifying the 787 on top of work done by designees.
Perhaps their biggest defense is that there have been no fatal crashes of scheduled commercial flights in the United States for four years.