FAA and the 787

So the FAA sat down with Boeing on Friday to hear their ideas on a fix for the battery problems. The FAA has basically said the 787 can’t return to service until “we’re one thousand percent sure they are safe to fly”. Those are actually the words of Ray Lahood, Secretary of Transportation, but they represent the FAA’s take on the issue.

I’m kind of torn on this.

On the one hand, they still aren’t entirely sure what caused the battery problems to occur in the first place. From what I understand, the National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the failed batteries. How do we know that any fix is really going to help until we know the true problem? I don’t really feel good about just designing a fix to contain the problem (ie. a containment box). What is the problem? Will the proposed fix really help with the actual problem?

However, the 787 is a big step forward in aeronautical engineering. Composite construction, lightweight Li-ion batteries, etc. It is pushing the efficiency envelope. That’s risky. Big steps forward always are. Waiting for “one thousand percent” certainty of safety would actually mean never flying. Obviously Secretary Lahood’s comments aren’t literal, but government regulators are not big fans of risk, even those that move us forward.

Boeing and the FAA are going to have to agree on a fix that is, hopefully, based on the actual causes of the battery failures. But the proof will be in putting these planes back in the skies and seeing just how well the “fix” actually works.

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