Sunday, January 20, 2013

At Boeing, pushback on 787 grounding

Boeing’s leadership privately believes the government’s grounding of the company’s flagship 787 Dreamliner was an unnecessarily drastic step, but its defensive attitude isn’t sitting well with some customers and risks alienating regulators. 

By Dominic Gates

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Boeing’s leadership privately believes the government’s grounding of the company’s flagship 787 Dreamliner was an unnecessarily drastic step, but its defensive attitude isn’t sitting well with some customers and it risks alienating regulators.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone at Boeing who believes the FAA should have grounded it,” said a former top executive, who asked for anonymity in speaking about his former colleagues. “They all believe the airplane is safe.”

But an executive in charge of fleet planning for a major airline that has 787s on order expressed astonishment that Boeing has seemed to minimize what he sees as potentially critical incidents.

“At no stage have they appeared to be open to admitting the seriousness of what’s happened,” the executive said. “They are basically still in denial.”

Before ordering the first such grounding in more than three decades, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) first announced a sweeping 787 safety review when a battery caught fire on an empty Japan Airlines (JAL) 787 parked in Boston, shortly after 137 passengers and crew disembarked from a 12-hour flight.

Then just days after unveiling the review, an All Nippon Airways (ANA) 787 was forced to make an emergency landing in western Japan when a battery overheated and spewed hot chemicals and soot into the electronics bay.

The next day, the FAA followed Japanese airlines in grounding the Dreamliner, and regulators worldwide followed suit

Nonetheless, Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney, in a message to employees Friday, said “We have high confidence in the safety of the 787 and stand squarely behind its integrity.”

“We are working around the clock to support the FAA, our customers, and others in the investigations,” McNerney wrote.

Gordon Bethune, the former Boeing executive who left to run Continental Airlines — and who in that position bought the grounded Dreamliners now owned by United — is emphatic that the government overreached.

He criticized the decision to ground the plane, which was made by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and FAA chief Michael Huerta.

“Neither of those two guys know the front end from the back of an airplane,” Bethune said.

“They jumped the gun, but that’s the product of a cover-your-ass administration,” he fumed. “It’s heavy-handed, draconian and way, way beyond what needs to be done to protect the public.”

”Obviously, (Boeing’s leaders) are disappointed in this overreaction,” Bethune said. “But it doesn’t help them to bitch, so they will never say anything publicly that could be disparaging to the government.”

“Don’t think they are making light of this,” Bethune added. “I’m sure they are chagrined as hell. But they are going to fix it.”

While many airline customers have publicly expressed confidence in Boeing, privately some have reservations.

On Friday, the fleet planning executive for a 787 customer airline looked at a photo of the burned-out battery taken from the ANA jet and said he feels “very uneasy” that Boeing minimized the in-flight threat.

Though apparently in that case there was no fire outside the battery, the charred mess visible inside after investigators opened it up was startling enough.

And he noted that when a fire had broken out a week earlier from a battery on a Japan Airlines 787 parked in Boston, Boeing’s public statements never used the word “fire.”

After the Boston fire, Boeing tried to narrow the scope of the FAA’s safety review, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

And right up until the announcement that the planes were grounded following the in-flight ANA incident, Boeing argued to the FAA that passengers were never at risk.

A person with knowledge of the deliberations said Boeing maintained that safety controls had worked as designed on that flight to shut down the battery and prevent a fire.

Regulators were not persuaded.

Now Boeing is struggling to satisfy aviation authorities in both the U.S. and Japan with an interim fix that includes thorough one-time battery inspections and instructions to pilots to do specific preflight electrical system checks.

However, the release Friday by the Japan Transport Safety Board of the ANA battery photo, along with a public statement by Japan transport-ministry investigator Hideyo Kosugi that suggests the battery may have been overcharged, undermine the proposal for an interim fix.

Boeing Vice President Mike Sinnett, briefing reporters about the battery’s safety features last week, said the battery couldn’t overcharge because four independent control systems would shut off the power to the battery before anything that critical occurred.

Perhaps that system worked as intended. But investigators are still working on finding out and the burned-out state of the battery raises concern.

“Until they know what caused it, they can’t start finding a fix,” said the airline executive.

An interim solution of battery inspections “is a tough sell to the FAA and to the operators without knowing the root cause,” he added.

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