The Boeing 787 Dreamliner — Words I Wrote in 2009!


I’m going to interrupt this week’s series on the El Paso Museum of Art for some breaking news (and an “I told you so”).  Look for the third and final installment on EPMA on Monday.  Meanwhile:

Just before I retired from the FAA I submitted to my literary agent an exposé on the FAA under Administrator Marion C. Blakey.  Try as he might, my agent could not find a publisher for that book.  The responses from many was that The Tombstone Agency was just too terrifying to see print.

As I’m writing these words (Wednesday, January 16, 2013), the FAA has just announced the grounding of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner.  This came within hours of a grounding of Dreamliners in Japan.  And once again, my words have been validated by events.  Below are excerpts of what I had to say back in 2009 on the subject of Administrator Blakey’s decision to allow aircraft manufacturers to practically self-certify their own aircraft as airworthy, with particular focus on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

What’s that, you say?  Self-certify?  Their own aircraft?  Isn’t that like that fox and hen house thing?  Surely you jest.

I never jest about aviation safety,  and don’t call me “Shirley.”  From the Seattle Times concerning an extension of a Blakey-era mandate that redefined airlines and aircraft manufacturers as “customers”:

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Tuesday extended the authority of Boeing Commercial Airplanes to self-certify its aircraft and aircraft technologies. Under the agency’s new safety oversight model, Boeing manufacturing and engineering employees will perform delegated tasks for the FAA, including signing certificates approving new designs.

That above excerpt was written in August of 2009, well after Marion Blakey had done her damage and moved on to greener pastures.  But her legacy continues to this day.

Now that you’ve digested the above (Getting the flick on Marion Blakey by now?  If not, see the links at the end of this article.), here’s what I said back in 2009:

Flight Standards Division —
Certifications of New Aircraft

Aircraft certifications—both completed and ongoing—are so tainted by bonus-hungry, customer-oriented managers as to be worthless as far as the flying public is concerned.  No one should feel safe stepping aboard any aircraft certified as airworthy during this time period, or even if any part of the certification process was conducted over the past seven years.

That includes the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.  Indeed in February 2009, the FAA rewrote its own certification rules on fuel tank safety—rules written in the aftermath of the 1996 TWA 800 Boeing 747 explosion—because the Dreamliner could not meet those standards.  An unprecedented 190 FAA Engineers signed a letter deeming this move, “… an unjustified step backward in safety.”  And those FAA Engineers were backed up by other voices outside the Agency.  In the words of former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, “It appears that management has overruled the judgment of the people [who] have day-to-day responsibility for the safety of aircraft.”

And:

Flight Standards Division —
Certifications of New Aircraft

Currently, specific Flight Standards District Offices (FSDO) have certification authority over aircraft manufacturers within their geographic area of jurisdiction.  Since, for instance, Boeing’s new aircraft will always be inspected by the FSDO serving Washington State, then the FAA inspectors and more importantly their managers will over time develop a relationship with Boeing and Boeing personnel.  This is only human nature.

But human nature and personal relationships have no business in ensuring the safety of the flying public.  As such, this practice simply has to stop.  The recent rewriting of fuel tank standards by FAA FSDO managers because Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner could not meet requirements is a classic example.  Until this symbiotic relationship is abolished, aircraft certifications will always be tainted because of how the system was gamed under the Blakey regime.

The only way to fix this is to rotate certifications of new aircraft among FSDO personnel assigned outside the geographical area.  Expensive?  Yes.  But then so is the crash of a Boeing 787 carrying 300+ passengers—not to mention the impact to business Boeing would incur should other countries no longer accept FAA certifications because of mistrust or scandal.

Managers need to have their mandates narrowed in scope.  They should oversee the performance and needs of their inspectors.  They should never be in a position to overturn the findings of their own inspectors; they have neither the expertise nor the direct knowledge of the inspector to justify such actions.

One final recommendation:  Under no circumstance should anyone in FSDO ever be allowed to refer to any aircraft manufacturer as a ‘customer.’  They are not.

Here’s those promised links for more on Marion Blakey:

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