In certifying new planes, the FAA relies heavily on information from the manufacturers. That system has worked — the U.S. commercial airline fleet is safer than ever — but it is coming under renewed scrutiny after the 787 incidents.
Experts say that FAA officials have no choice but to rely on information from aircraft manufacturers as key systems of the plane are designed and built.
"As a practical matter, they can't do the testing," said longtime aviation consultant Daniel Kasper of Compass Lexecon. "They don't have the expertise in aircraft design, and they don't have the budget — it would be too costly. They would have to be involved in every step."
Thomas Anthony, director of the aviation-safety program at the University of Southern California, said many new planes have flaws that are only discovered once they go into service, and that the regulatory process worked the way it was supposed to with the Dreamliner.
"The FAA used to be accused of 'blood priority'" — acting only after a disaster, Anthony said. "In this case, it's not true. The regulators are taking their job seriously. There were no accidents, there were no injuries, there were no fatalities."
That has not always been the case. In 1979, authorities grounded the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 for five weeks after an engine tore loose from the wing of an American Airlines plane, causing a crash that killed 273 in Chicago. And there were other incidents that occurred after the DC-10 was introduced in 1971, including cargo-door problems that forced one emergency landing and caused a Turkish Airlines crash that killed 346 in 1974.
Boeing, based in Chicago, is racing to find a fix to the Dreamliner's battery systems and get the planes back in the air. It is still producing 787s but has stopped delivering them to customers.
Bloomberg News reported that Boeing has tried to persuade FAA to end the groundings by proposing a variety of inspections and having pilots monitor electronic signals from the batteries to prevent fires. The FAA has been reluctant to approve those steps without a clear idea of what caused the defects and how they can be prevented.
AP Airlines Writer Joshua Freed contributed to this story from Minneapolis.
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