Thoughts about the FAA-Boeing 787 program review
As the Boeing 787 problems evolve from annoying, in-service teething issues into a fire, a full program review by the Federal Aviation Administration, a second battery issue and now a grounding, the program review raises almost as many questions as it hopes to solve.
The FAA has never been adequately staffed, nor staffed with enough experts, to conduct program development and certifications without relying on the manufacturers and supply chains to provide analysis and expertise.
Since the creation of the FAA, this system has worked pretty well. Although some may argue that the FAA and the industry are too cozy—and sometimes there certainly appears to be justification in this criticism—it’s in nobody’s interest to screw up. The airplane makers and their stakeholders have to make safe airplanes. The FAA—the regulators—have to assure that the airplanes are safe. The airlines, who carry the passengers, clearly need safe airplanes.
The development of the 787 was new ground for the FAA. It didn’t have experts in composites, and the ground-breaking nature of many of the systems and the batteries, tasked the FAA. Reliance on Authorized Representatives at Boeing and in the supply chain was a critical part of the FAA’s review of the program development and certification.
Throughout the development, we were told many times by persons familiar with the process that the FAA often times felt in over its head, particularly relating to the composite technology.
Now, following the Japan Air Lines fire in Boston, the FAA and Boeing announced a full program review—not just that of the issues surrounding the battery—but including design and production in addition to the battery and related systems.
The obvious question, however, is that since the FAA is reviewing its own work and has to rely on Boeing and the supply chain ARs again, just how thorough can the review truly be?
Furthermore, with the prospect at the time of Boeing’s engineers going on strike, where would Boeing get engineering expertise if the union did walk out?
Doug Alder, a Boeing spokesman for the company relating to the labor negotiations, told us, “We have contingency plans and can use the full resources of the Boeing Company.”
Engineers who are not covered by the SPEEA contract, including from the Defense unit who were loaned to the 787 program, are one or two obvious resources. Contract engineers who also worked on the 787 are another.
But an aerospace engineer not connected with Boeing or SPEEA, who has been under contract at various times to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and other aerospace companies, is skeptical.
“They need outside experts and SPEEA engineers,” the person tells us. “The key will be a review team leader and tone he sets. Who leads the effort will say a lot. That should definitely be an outsider.
“There aren’t that many qualified outside experts (except at Airbus). Where are they going to get them from?” he says. “This is where the extreme out sourcing really causes problems. How are they going to get their suppliers to be truthful? That has always been a problem in aeronautics. The 787 organization makes it much, much worse.”
SPEEA, not surprisingly, is also skeptical.
“There are four categories of people with signature authority and their own jurisdiction over which they have signature authority (they can’t perform the work of others),” Ray Goforth, executive director of the union, tells us:
- Authorized Reps: 614
- MRBDs (Material Review Board Designee):208
- MRBs (Material Review Board): 667
- Project Administrators: 19
“The Authorized Reps wield the signature authority of the FAA and are essentially irreplaceable. They have to have very specialized skill sets, trusted working relationships with their FAA peers and intimate knowledge of the specific parts they’re working on. You can’t take somebody with AR authority over 737 landing gear and let them make AR decisions over 787 landing gear.”
Goforth said the MRBs and MRBDs deal with problems in production (major and minor deviations from plans). The Project Administrators have a coordinating function with ARs, Goforth tells us.
This Reuters story has a comment from the FAA about in-sourcing replacements.
We asked Boeing about the process of reviewing its own work under this FAA plan. Further 787 events overtook this request, and as yet we’ve not had a response.
But the question of how the FAA, Boeing and its supply chain can efficiently and thoroughly review its work that is now in question remains.
SPEEA’s involvement may, or may not, be soon resolved. SPEEA proposed incorporating areas of agreement into the current contract and extending it for four years so all parties can turn their attention to solving the 787 issues. Boeing is considering the proposal. The two sides are to meet
Thursday at 9am.