Boeing's 787 Is Airborne Again. Should It Be?

On April 27, a collective sigh of relief was heard from Boeing, its many suppliers, and a number of the world's airlines as a Boeing 787 operated by Ethiopian Airlines took to the skies for the first scheduled commercial 787 flight since regulators worldwide grounded the planes in January.

On Sunday, Japanese airline ANA operated the first of a series of test flights expected to culminate in the relaunch of its scheduled 787 flights sometime in May.

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The only current U.S. 787 operator, United, will return its Dreamliners to service after the planes have been retrofitted with the FAA-approved batteries which have been redesigned and fitted with new cases.

And Boeing announced that deliveries of the 787 will resume next month.

That's a lot of good news for a program that had been in danger of deteriorating from Boeing's high-tech success story into a cautionary tale of hubris and mismanagement.

But doubts linger as to the adequacy of the fixes for the beleaguered plane's battery system—even Boeing admits that the root cause of the lithium-ion batteries' overheating remains unknown. And more profoundly, the battery problems and the resulting grounding of the affected aircraft have called into question the process by which the FAA certified the batteries, both initially and the second time around.

If the FAA certification process is not as transparent, objective, and robust as it should be, how much faith can the traveling public have that the batteries are now, finally, safe?

In a weekend editorial in the New York Times, former NTSB chairman James Hall pointed out the disturbingly cozy relationship between the FAA and the industry it is tasked with overseeing and regulating. He points out that commercial aircraft like the 787 are now certified not by independent reviewers but by the manufacturer's own employees: "Essentially, aircraft makers persuaded the FAA to let them certify their own aircraft so they could save money." That's hardly the kind of independent oversight that inspires faith in the process or its outcome.

Last week, the NTSB held a two-day hearing on the design and certification of the 787's battery systems, with testimony from reps representing Boeing, the FAA, and the battery manufacturer.

Predictably, those testifying defended the FAA's oversight process, citing the unprecedented number of hours devoted to certifying the 787. But the post-certification incidents and subsequent grounding must call into question the legitimacy of the certification process. As does the very fact that the NTSB found it necessary to hold such hearings.

The NTSB's current chairman, Deborah Hersman, was diplomatic but pointed in her concluding remarks:

We must take a hard look at how best to oversee and approve emerging technology in the future. The U.S. aviation community is using the same approach to certification that was created to certify our grandparents' aircraft and by most accounts it has served us very well. But perhaps it is time to ask if any changes are needed to update the system that will be used to oversee the development of new and beneficial technologies on our children's and our grandchildren's aircraft.

Hersman's predecessor at the NTSB, James Hall, was less inclined to pull his punches:

Now the 787 has been grounded for months, the FAA has lost face, and Boeing has been losing $50 million a week on a plane that was supposed to demonstrate innovative aircraft design and help the United States recapture its onetime dominance of the world aircraft market. Given all of that, the FAA's recent decision to approve Boeing's plans to fix the lithium-ion battery seems shortsighted and represents a complete failure of government oversight. It is puzzling that the agency was so quick on its feet to accommodate Boeing in recertifying the safety of the airplane, without even knowing the root cause of the battery problem.

Chronology of Dreamliner Issues, Events

  • On April 19, the FAA approved Boeing's proposed redesign of the 787's battery systems, including a modified battery and new enclosure that vents gas and smoke to the plane's exterior.
  • On February 9 and 11, Boeing completed two test flights, using one of six 787 test planes specially fitted with electronic tools to monitor and diagnose battery-related issues. Both flights were "uneventful."
  • On January 16, the FAA ordered all U.S. Dreamliners gounded until the safety issued could be sorted out. The move prompted a worldwide grounding.
  • On January 15, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines suspended all 787 flights following a battery malfunction that resulted in an emergency landing.
  • At least partly in response to the service suspensions by Japanese carriers, Qatar Airways canceled a scheduled 787 flight from London to Doha.
  • On January 13, a fuel leak was discovered on a Japan Airlines 787 at Tokyo's Narita Airport.
  • On January 11, the FAA announced that it would subject the 787 Dreamliner to an unusual post-launch "review."
  • On January 7, a fire broke out on a Japan Airlines 787 in Boston.
  • A fire similar to the one in Boston had been reported during the 787's testing phase in 2010.
  • In December, an electrical malfunction forced a United Airlines 787 to make an emergency landing.
  • Later that same month, United reported that the same issue had been discovered on a second Dreamliner.
  • Also in December, Qatar Airlines grounded one of its 787s because of electrical issues.
  • On December 5, the FAA ordered inspections of potential fuel-line leaks on all 787s.

About the 787 Dreamliner

The Dreamliner is Boeing's most advanced airliner, featuring such cutting-edge technology as lithium-ion batteries and a composite-plastic body.

The first 787 was received by ANA in September 2011, and since then 50 787s have been delivered to eight airline customers, including United.

The company has taken orders for 844 Dreamliners, and Boeing hopes to sell as many as 5,000 during the lifetime of the plane.

Reader Reality Check

Are you confident that Boeing has definitively fixed the 787's battery problems?

Has your faith in the FAA been shaken?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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