Lithium-ion batteries are well known for being much more flammable than older nickel-cadmium batteries, with fires that are all but impossible to extinguish until a battery's solvent-based liquid electrolytes burn out.
Among other things, the FAA required the battery design to prevent the possibility of spreading, uncontrolled overheating. That danger, known as thermal runaway, is exactly what occurred in the first of two 787 incidents, when a fire broke out aboard a Japan Airlines 787 after it landed in Boston's Logan Airport on Jan. 7. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the battery showed signs of short-circuit and thermal runaway.
The FAA also had decreed that any battery malfunction not damage surrounding electrical systems and equipment enough to cause a more serious failure. Yet the Japanese plane sustained damage to the adjacent electronics bay, although the NTSB has yet to determine whether the battery -- located beneath the cabin in the plane's rear and accessible only from the outside -- could have disabled critical flight controls had the fire occurred in midair.
Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the Transportation Department, said the FAA's extra safeguards for the battery instead turned out to be a blueprint for malfunctions.
"This regulation predicted that this would happen," Schiavo said.
She questioned the FAA's decision to "contain a failure, not eliminate it." She contends the agency perhaps should have pushed Boeing harder to consider alternatives to lithium-ion technology.
According to the FAA, Boeing's battery tests were observed by both company employees and agency staff. Some of the Boeing employees were acting as representatives of the FAA because Boeing has what's called an Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) to act as proxy on certification oversight.
From the early days of commercial aviation, the FAA has relied on third-party observers to ensure aircraft were designed, engineered and produced according to regulation. But partly in response to complaints about a slow and inefficient certification journey, the FAA has shifted even further away from detailed product oversight to focusing on overall systems safety.
The creation of the ODA system was one big change. Under it, Boeing became an FAA designee with wide latitude in picking the company's own engineers to sign off on their employer's work on behalf of the FAA. Previously, engineers in that role were approved by and reported directly to the FAA.
Bart Crotty, an aviation-safety consultant in Springfield, Va., said the FAA lacks the technical firepower to directly inspect every stage of getting a new aircraft in the air. So it's left to the manufacturers' employee engineering delegates to review the design, plan and observe tests, and certify they meet applicable standards.
FAA staff will attend many critical tests involving safety issues -- such as flammability of new materials and design of flight controls -- especially before the initial "type certificate" is issued for a new jet model. If they witness something questionable, FAA employees can refuse to sign off on a certificate, Crotty said.
But for the most part, the FAA's role is largely administrative, such as overseeing data recording. In fact, FAA employees don't conduct any hands-on inspections because of liability risks, said Crotty, who is a former industry designated airworthiness representative.
And once the manufacturer receives a production certificate greenlighting assembly, "the FAA becomes a ghost," he said.
Boeing's Jensen said ODA is not tantamount to self-certification. Instead, he said, Boeing's authority extends only to "routine compliance activity where we have the expertise and have demonstrated the capability," with the FAA retaining ultimate authority.
Jensen said Boeing is not disclosing how many battery tests it ran or other details.
Dreikorn, the former FAA official, doesn't believe the FAA ought to subsidize private research by conducting separate tests. Still, he contends the FAA wasn't quick or rigorous enough in anticipating troubles with the new lithium-ion technology.
The FAA's conditional approval for the 787 battery came a year after a three-alarm fire in Tucson, Ariz., in 2006 leveled a building where the company that makes the battery's charging-control system was working with a prototype.
In an incident in 2011, a new Cessna Citation business jet caught fire at that company's plant in Wichita, Kan., while its lithium-ion battery was being recharged. Cessna quickly decided to swap out the battery with nickel-cadmium versions that are less prone to ignite. That did not prompt the FAA to revise its special conditions on the 787 battery. According to the FAA, the design of Cessna's lithium-ion battery was different from Boeing's. Besides, the FAA said, the Cessna fire was caused by a mechanic who bypassed safety controls.
Dreikorn said that wasn't good enough.
"The FAA should have cast a very large shadow over the (787) design and certification processes. But, without the right expertise, the shadow does little good," he said.
If Boeing turns out to have made technical mistakes or followed regulations with less than absolute diligence, he said, "the FAA allowed them to do it."
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