AIN Blog: Feds’ Announcement of 787 Review Fraught with Ambiguity

 - January 18, 2013, 11:56 AM
Days before the latest incident involving the 787, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he wouldn't hesitate to fly on the airplane. (Photo: Paul Lowe)

Boeing didn’t get much of a chance to savor its near-record year-end sales figures and 2012 rate-increase successes. Barely a week into the New Year, executives suddenly found themselves in crisis mode, as runaway publicity over the 787’s most recent “teething problems” drew special treatment from U.S. federal regulators. Not until after an All Nippon Airways 787 made an emergency landing in western Japan last week would Boeing come to realize (or at least publicly acknowledge) the magnitude of its predicament, however, as the FAA finally saw little choice but to follow the lead of both Japanese Dreamliner operators and ground the airplanes.

In a hastily called press conference in Washington, D.C. on January 11, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive Ray Conner stood with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in what looked like an effort to assure the traveling public that nothing had occurred up to that point that should warrant any concern. So why, then, one might have asked, would the FAA launch a special review of the 787’s “critical processes?”

Conner in effect said the so-called review amounted to little more than an effort to formalize what already happens as a matter of course between the FAA and the manufacturer. After all, the FAA and Boeing constantly work together to ensure the integrity of design and production processes. This, one might suppose, would somehow sanctify that relationship.

In fact, during press conference, both LaHood and Huerta issued votes of confidence in the 787 and LaHood said he wouldn’t hesitate to fly on it. Of course, had they done anything less, they would have found themselves fielding questions about why they hadn’t grounded the airplane right away.

So had the media simply engaged in a feeding frenzy? In hindsight, it would seem not. Given the voluntary groundings in Japan, it would stand to reason that those airlines considered public concerns well-founded.

In the U.S., the government’s vested interest in Boeing’s commercial success and the FAA’s dual obligations to the industry and the public seemed to have bred a more tentative response to the incidents, or at least one influenced by a desire to control the message as to not cause undue anxiety.

Unfortunately for Boeing, the Japanese went and sounded the alarm. Perhaps they didn’t get the proverbial memo.