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Boeing could face extended 787 grounding

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US National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman has likely ended all hopes that Boeing had of convincing FAA to lift the grounding of 787s in a short period of time.

I think it’s now not just possible but likely the grounding will last for many weeks and perhaps even for several months or longer.

Following comments this week by Hersman (“This is a very serious air safety concern,” she said) and US transportation secretary Ray LaHood (“We need to get to the bottom of the recent issues with the batteries … and ensure their safety before these aircraft can be put back into service,” he said), here’s what I think has to happen before the 787 is cleared to fly again:

1) NTSB needs to find a root cause for the Jan. 7 Japan Airlines 787 fire in Boston; Hersman indicated the investigation will be “methodical” and include numerous tests and consultations with a wide range of experts. NTSB often takes months and sometimes years before settling on an incident’s cause.

2) The Japan Transport Safety Board will have to determine a root cause for the Jan. 16 All Nippon Airways lithium ion battery event that led to an emergency landing. JTSB is also a careful, meticulous organization and won’t likely rush to any conclusions.

3) NTSB will have to determine not just the cause of the JAL lithium ion battery failure but why 787 backup safety systems did not prevent it from escalating to a fire. “The expectation in aviation is never to experience a fire aboard an aircraft,” Hersman said. “These events should not happen as far as the design of the aircraft. There are multiple systems that are in place to prevent [a battery failure from escalating to a serious event]. Those systems did not work.”

4) Boeing will then have to come up with a satisfactory fix for both the battery and its backup safety systems.

5) That fix will have to be implemented on all 50 787s that had been in service worldwide and on all 787s being produced by Boeing.

How long all that takes is anyone’s guess at this point, but barring unexpected fast breakthroughs in the NTSB and JTSB investigations, it appears it will take a good deal of time. And what if the separate reviews of the 787 program by FAA and the Japanese transport ministry find other problems?

Though it will be painful to do so, Boeing must now develop a plan for dealing with a 787 grounding that could very well last for an extended period of time.

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