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Updated Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 12:59 PM

Top regulators defend grounding Boeing’s 787

By Kyung M. Song
Seattle Times Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — The top two federal regulators who grounded Boeing’s 787s over battery problems vigorously defended their decision Wednesday amid continuing uncertainty about when the jetliners will be cleared to fly again.

Facing a scrum of reporters for the first time since issuing a rare order Jan. 16 to pull the Dreamliner from service, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Michael Huerta, the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), said the 787 won’t return to the air until investigators find the root causes of the malfunction.

“We must be confident that the problems are corrected before we can move forward,” LaHood said during a previously scheduled lunch at the Aero Club in Washington, D.C.

LaHood and Huerta issued the emergency directive after separate incidents this month in which one high-energy lithium-ion battery caught fire in a plane on the ground and another sprayed overheated electrolytes, forcing an emergency landing.

After the second incident, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, the two carriers involved, voluntarily grounded their new 787 fleets. The FAA followed suit hours later.

Sounding combative at times, LaHood, a former Illinois congressman, fended off questions about his and Huerta’s lack of technical expertise, criticisms that the FAA should have grounded the planes sooner after the first incident, and conversely whether doing so after the second was overkill.

LaHood said the grounding was necessary to ensure the plane was safe, and that a thorough review by technical investigators will determine the 787’s airworthiness.

“We need to let them finish their work,” LaHood said. “They’ll get to the bottom of it.”

Asked if there was pressure to lift the flight ban, LaHood said, “Absolutely not. Boeing is cooperating 100 percent with this review.”

Huerta added, “We don’t know what caused these incidents yet.” He said any corrective steps, and the fate of the lithium-ion battery — will be dictated by evidence.

“We’ll go where the data takes us,” he said.

The battery on a Dreamliner operated by Japan Airlines burned Jan. 7 after the jet had unloaded passengers at Logan Airport in Boston.

Then Jan. 16, All Nippon Airways (ANA) pilots made an emergency landing in Japan after detecting what they believed were smoke odors. The smell was traced to an overheated battery that spewed electrolytes, which the FAA said could have caused fires in the electrical compartment and damaged critical components.

Huerta said the ANA battery’s failure triggered the grounding “because the second incident occurred in flight.”

Asked if the FAA would have taken that action even if the Japanese carriers hadn’t done so first, Huerta replied, “I’m not going to speculate on that.”

The grounding is the FAA’s first such action against a jetliner since 1979, after a DC-10 crash in Chicago. Since then, engine explosions, collapsed landing gears and other serious accidents have not triggered a fleetwide flight ban until the Dreamliner.

Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the Transportation Department and an aviation-safety expert, said the FAA had little choice but to act after the battery overheated aboard the ANA jet.

“The second incident in a short period of time set a trend” and suggested the earlier fire in Boston wasn’t an anomaly, said Schiavo, now an aviation attorney in Charleston, S.C. “I do think (the FAA) did the right thing.”

Schiavo said the caution was further warranted because of two known fires during the 787’s test phase before it was certified to fly in 2011. The lithium-ion battery caught fire during a 2006 test conducted with the FAA, and a midair fire flared in one of the jetliner’s electrical-distribution panels in 2010.

Kyung M. Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com


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