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Tough questions for Boeing, FAA on 787

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Now it may be time to panic.

After attending the US Department of Transportation/FAA Jan. 11 press conference on FAA’s “comprehensive review” of the Boeing 787, I wrote that “this is no time to panic” for Boeing, which has a lot going for it on the commercial aviation front and could continue to point to the 787’s generally excellent operational performance and high-tech charm even as it cooperated with FAA’s safety probe.

But that was then. Since US transportation secretary Ray LaHood and FAA administrator Michael Huerta strongly assured the public the 787 is safe to fly (pronouncements they are likely already regretting), the Japanese government launched its own 787 investigation, an All Nippon Airways 787 made an emergency landing—passengers hurriedly evacuated the plane by sliding down escape chutes—and executives from ANA, the 787 launch customer no less, profusely apologized to the Japanese public. Now FAA has taken the extraordinary step of grounding the aircraft.

I’ve covered the 787 from its early, theoretical phase through its development/production delays, its belated first flight and sometimes rocky flight test program, to its three-year-delayed entry into service, and on through its first year-plus of service. I’ve been on the 787 assembly line in Everett, Wash., flown aboard Ethiopian Airlines’ first Dreamliner and seen LAN Airlines employees marvel at their first 787 as it sat outside the carrier’s maintenance facilities in Santiago de Chile.

I say all that to give a bit of credibility to this: The events of the last few of days, culminating with the FAA grounding, have been absolutely stunning. And the embarrassment to Boeing cannot be overstated. This is a devastating blow for the 787 program, which has already had its share of troubles. The grounding will forever be a part of the Dreamliner’s story.

Though I don’t really think Boeing should panic (little good ever comes from panicking), the manufacturer is now navigating uncharted territory. FAA, NTSB, the Japanese transport ministry and the Japan Transport Safety Board are all investigating the 787. It’s likely other countries will follow FAA and also ground the 787; but even if they don’t, 30 of the 50 delivered 787s are now parked.

There’s little guidance on how long the FAA-ordered grounding will last. And even after the grounding is lifted, FAA’s review, NTSB’s probe of the JAL 787 fire in Boston and the Japanese inquiries are likely to last for months or longer, forcing Boeing to spend time and energy defending every aspect of the 787—from its more electric design, to its global production process, to the specifics of how certain components, especially lithium ion batteries, operate.

Can it do that and ramp up Dreamliner production as planned?

As for DOT and FAA, there was an odd feeling to last week’s press conference and, in retrospect, it feels odder still. Why did FAA launch a wide-ranging safety review of the 787 but allow the aircraft to continue to fly? Why, just days after an on-board fire and as NTSB was just starting its probe, were LaHood and Huerta so eager to say over and over (and rather emphatically) that the aircraft was safe to fly? And why was Boeing Commercial Airplanes president and CEO Ray Conner standing side-by-side with LaHood and Huerta?

Shouldn’t US regulators keep an arm’s-length distance from executives of a company whose signature product they are investigating over safety concerns? Did a plea from Conner, representing one of the US’s most high-profile exporters, convince US officials to hold off on the grounding last week even as they launched a safety probe?

Lots of questions. And there will continue for some time to be many questions for Boeing and FAA to answer regarding the 787. Unfortunately for Boeing, this isn’t going away easily or anytime soon.

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