Updated Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 08:16 PM
WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, who Tuesday took over as the top Democrat on the House aviation subcommittee, said he will not second-guess the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision last week to ground Boeing’s 787 fleet over unresolved problems with overheated batteries, saying safety should take precedence over everything else.
“If the FAA believes the grounding is necessary, then I believe it,” said Larsen, of Lake Stevens. “Safety has to come first. I think the people at Boeing recognize that as well.”
Larsen on Tuesday was voted in as the new ranking Democrat on the aviation subcommittee for the 113th Congress. The panel oversees the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and other agencies as part of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Boeing’s widebody plant in Everett is in Larsen’s 2nd District and is the district’s largest employer.
The FAA’s rare emergency directive — the first time it has grounded a U.S. jetliner since 1979 — has exacerbated concerns about the Dreamliner’s cutting-edge technology.
Boeing, its suppliers, the NTSB and airlines are scrambling to find the cause of malfunctions aboard two 787s operated by Japanese carriers earlier this month that left one battery burned and another spraying overheated electrolytes.
Asked if the FAA’s certification process for new passenger jets has kept pace with advances in aircraft design and manufacturing, Larsen said the Dreamliner’s woes have not made that an issue yet in Congress.
“Let the FAA and Boeing and the NTSB work through this process” first, said Larsen, adding the House has no plans to schedule hearings over the 787.
In a statement, Sen. Maria Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security, said she hopes for a quick resolution that gets the 787s back in the air.
“I support the ongoing NTSB investigation of the two incidents involving lithium batteries and the FAA review of the certification of the critical systems of the Boeing 787,” Cantwell said.
The Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will make the 787 “a priority” in an upcoming aviation-safety hearing that was already in the works, a spokesman for the committee told the Chicago Sun-Times. The committee is chaired by Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
The FAA certified the 787 in 2011. But Boeing’s flagship jetliner was involved in at least two fires during its test phase.
The aircraft’s lithium-ion battery caught fire during a test in 2006, which a Boeing spokesman blamed on a flawed test, not battery design, in an interview with The New York Times last week.
And in 2010, a midair fire broke out in one of the plane’s electrical-distribution panels, prompting Boeing to halt all flight tests for about six weeks while it redesigned the panels.
In the first of the two recent incidents, a battery in a Japan Airlines 787 caught fire Jan. 7 after passengers had disembarked at Boston’s Logan Airport. The FAA ordered a comprehensive safety review of the aircraft.
But on Jan. 15, an All Nippon Airways 787 made an emergency landing in Japan after the pilots reported smelling an unfamiliar odor in the cockpit and the passenger cabin that was traced to the battery. Immediately after the second incident, the two Japanese carriers voluntarily took their 787s out of service.
Hours later, the FAA followed with its own order banning American carriers from flying the Dreamliner until the battery problem is fixed.
The FAA has not explained why the All Nippon Airways incident triggered the grounding, except for a statement that the malfunctions “could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment.”
Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, declined further comment.
The last time the agency took such action involving a large commercial jet was after the 1979 crash of an American Airlines DC-10, whose left engine fell off shortly after takeoff from Chicago O’Hare Airport. The accident killed 273 people.
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U.S. Rep Rick Larsen’sdistrict takes in 787 plant.