INFLUENCE GAME: Congress quiet on Dreamliner woes

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 19, 2013 at 11:39 am •  Published: March 19, 2013
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House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said he sees no need for hearings, especially since the two agencies have their own probes under way.

"I have confidence in the FAA, I have confidence in Boeing," he said, noting that the committee has been "very well briefed."

But Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman, had misgivings about Congress relying solely on private briefings. "Where is the public responsibility, where is the public accountability in those types of meetings?" he asked.

The NTSB has been unable to establish a root cause for the Boston fire, and its investigators are also looking into the process by which the FAA certified the 787 as safe for flight in August 2011. In recent years, the FAA has increasingly delegated responsibility for testing the components and systems of new planes to employees of aircraft manufacturers and their subcontractors. Documents released by the NTSB show the FAA delegated the testing of the 787's batteries to Boeing, which in turn delegated much of it to subcontractors.

Boeing's testing indicated the likelihood that a battery would emit smoke was 1 in 10 million flight hours. Instead, there were two smoking batteries less than two weeks apart, when the entire 787 fleet had recorded only about 52,000 flight hours.

The FAA is conducting its own review of the design, manufacture and assembly of the 787, but that isn't expected to be completed until later this year.

Shortly after the Jan. 7 fire in Boston, Rockefeller and his staff told reporters he intended to hold a 787 hearing. They quickly shelved the idea, and later scheduled a more general aviation budget and safety hearing for Wednesday.

The chairman of the panel's aviation subcommittee, Democrat Maria Cantwell, is from Boeing's home state of Washington. Asked about the possibility of a 787 hearing, she was noncommittal. She'd prefer to have hearings on the importance of "aviation manufacturing and how do we maintain a robust workforce because the U.S. industry is facing great competition from China, Brazil, and others that want to be in the business," Cantwell said.

Washington's other senator, Democrat Patty Murray, chairs the subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee that oversees the FAA's and the NTSB's budgets.

Boeing employs more than 86,000 workers in Washington, mostly in the Seattle area. The company's political action committee and its employees have contributed $107,200 to Cantwell's political campaigns since 1992, more than any other industry donor except Microsoft, which is based in Redmond, Wash.

Overall, the company employs 173,000 workers, and reported about $81 billion in revenue in 2012, 54 percent of it from outside the U.S. In the last two years, the company's political committees and its employees gave federal candidates, other political action committees, political parties and outside campaign spending groups nearly $3.2 million, 54 percent to Republicans and 46 percent to Democrats.

It's doubtful that a hearing on the airliner's battery problems would produce many answers on how to improve aviation safety, said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., chairman of the House transportation committee's aviation panel.

"The whole focus now is to get this fixed," he said. "We are trying to let them solve the problem, and they are devoting enormous resources to doing that."

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the senior Democrat on the transportation committee, said he and some other committee members are concerned a hearing might create "an unnecessary scare when there is no grounds for it," resulting in air travelers refusing to fly the planes.

"I think the parties that are part of this process would rather not see this in the public arena until they have done their proper investigations and found some answers," he said.

But another committee member, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said he's concerned about the growing presence of lithium ion batteries on planes, either as equipment or as cargo. They are more likely to short-circuit and start a fire than other batteries if they are damaged, defective or exposed to excessive heat.

"Is this a good idea for the future?" he asked. "Given the current technology, I think it's a bad idea."

The 787 is the first airliner to make extensive use of lithium batteries. The batteries are lighter, recharge faster and can store more energy than other types of batteries of an equivalent size. The Airbus A350, expected to be ready next year, was originally planned to make extensive use of lithium ion batteries. Airbus officials decided to switch to more conventional batteries after the 787 was grounded.

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Online:

National Transportation Safety Board's 787 investigation http://1.usa.gov/YoBGEP