Since when is an Emergency AD used to ground an aircraft fleet, as it has been in the case of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner? First off, let me be clear that if anything good can be said of the Boeing Dreamliner nightmare it’s that no one had to die before the FAA would take definitive action to ground the 787 until its battery fire problems could be investigated properly. That’s a big deal indeed. There’s no question in my mind that further operations without understanding and correcting what was happening to the batteries would have placed an unacceptable level of risk on the passengers, crew and aircraft. I’ve walked through the charred wreckage of too many aircraft accidents–and met with far too many grieving relatives of the victims–not to appreciate the significance of this moment.
Yes, it should be obvious that when the FAA learns of a significant threat to air safety–and an onboard fire anywhere on an aircraft surely qualifies–it has a duty to act, and act immediately. Bureaucrats in Washington cannot allow passengers or crewmembers to be flying guinea pigs while they try to figure out what the problems are and how to fix them. But this is not often the FAA way. Whether it’s held captive to the aviation industry or just has a difficult time making tough decisions, the agency–on far too many occasions–has failed to take appropriate action until after a deadly accident. So often it’s only under the intense media pressure of a disaster, and the unrelenting lobbying of family members of the deceased, that the FAA is finally forced–usually by Congressional direction–to make safety improvements.
And, yes, I know that the groundings in Japan probably forced the FAA’s hand in this case. The FAA issued the emergency AD only after both Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways announced that they would ground their fleets, following the emergency landing of the ANA 787. That emergency landing was prompted by an unusual odor in the cockpit that was traced to a battery fire. Yet it’s still nice to see that the FAA can act quickly in the face of a significant safety question.
And, of course, the problems with the lithium-ion batteries (it’s not exactly a surprise that they have problems with overheating and catching fire) may lead back to the way the FAA certifies new aircraft types. Many of its own engineers have complained in recent times that too much work is delegated to designees and the agency provides so much less oversight than it did in the past. This problem is no doubt exacerbated by the challenges of overseeing development of an aircraft whose component parts are produced all over the world, many of them thousands of miles from any FAA certification office.
Type Certificate Action Warranted
I don’t question that a grounding of the 787 fleet was prudent and necessary in the interests of air safety. But I do question the use of an Emergency Airworthiness Directive to accomplish that grounding, when no fix is provided. There’s no inspection that’s mandated, no corrective action that needs to be taken. The action required is a marvel of government gobbledygook. Under the heading AD Requirements, it states: “[T]his AD requires modification of the battery system, or other actions, in accordance with a method approved by the manager, Seattle Aircraft Certification Office (ACO) FAA.” What does that mean when no method is provided?
What it means to me is that the FAA engaged in linguistic–if not legalistic–contortions to arrive at this method of grounding the fleet. In the process it basically made a sham of the airworthiness directive process. Why does that matter, you ask? Well, first, the government shouldn’t engage in legal contortions for one entity that it perhaps wouldn’t do for anyone else. Process matters, and treating everyone the same is a worthy government goal.
So what I deduce from this extreme stretching of the AD process is that the FAA was trying to ground the fleet without pulling the 787’s type certificate. I can understand that Boeing would have fought hard to keep the agency from pulling its type certificate. Clearly that would have impugned the aircraft and Boeing’s design and manufacturing far more than an Emergency Airworthiness Directive. But does that make it the right thing to do?
Those of us old enough to remember the 1979 grounding of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 remember that it was accomplished by pulling the aircraft’s type certificate. In that case, after American Airlines Flight 191 crashed on takeoff from Chicago O’Hare Airport on May 25, 1979, killing all 271 on board and two people on the ground, investigators determined that the accident occurred because of faulty maintenance procedures. But investigators also found a design flaw in the aircraft. Because of that design flaw, the FAA suspended the DC-10’s type certificate. Once the design flaw was fixed, the FAA lifted the order suspending the type certificate.
The FAA pulled the type certificate because of questions it had regarding the aircraft design, and pulling the type certificate was the only way to legitimately halt operation of the aircraft. The agency didn’t issue an Emergency AD to the aircraft operators, because aircraft operators can’t fix design or manufacturing problems.
Which brings me to the Emergency AD on the Boeing 787. It’s pretty clear that United–currently the only U.S. operator of the type–can’t fix a design or manufacturing problem with the aircraft, its electrical system or its batteries and that any FAA order should have been directed at the manufacturer, Boeing. So what difference does it make? The aircraft is grounded, right? Well, it may end up making a difference when a supposed fix is found for the problem. It’s a lot easier to say that an AD has been complied with than to ensure that the requirements of a type certificate have been met.