January 16, 2013
The Boeing Dreamliner is a dream – as long as your dream includes a three-year wait for your order due to production problems, or engine failures or electrical system headaches. All these and more have plagued the 787 jet airliner in the last several years. The latest bad news: today Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways grounded their 24-jet Dreamliner fleets at least until tomorrow, after a battery warning light and burning smell in the cockpit and cabin forced a landing and evacuation. This mishap follows a January 7 cabin fire aboard a Japan Airlines Dreamliner caused by an overheated battery, a cracked cockpit window, fuel leaks, an oil leak and brake issues.
The Federal Aviation Administration had announced that it had initiated a nose-to-tail review of the jet’s design, manufacture and assembly, which Boeing had pitched as a fuel-efficient aircraft constructed of lighter weight composite materials. No worries, though. According to our Chief Transportation Salesman Ray LaHood, it’s all good.
“I believe this plane is safe and I would have absolutely no reservations of boarding one of these planes and taking a flight,” LaHood asserted at a press conference.
A social studies teacher before he became a professional politician, LaHood uses safety as political currency, and this isn’t the first time he’s dropped a coin or two in industry’s palm. What’s wrong with that? For one, they teach you on the first day of Investigation School not to announce the conclusion before your analysis is done. When the Big Boss tells the world that a product is safe, can the investigators really say anything different? But Ray cannot contain himself.
In December 2011, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigators were in the midst of probing Chevy Volt battery fires, LaHood declared: “Chevy Volt owners can be confident that their cars are safe to drive.” About a month later, NHTSA closed the Volt investigation, saying that there was no defect trend.
Second, if you must make sweeping statements, try to keep them connected to reality. In February 2011, when NHTSA and NASA released their analysis of possible electronic causes of Unintended Acceleration in Toyota vehicles, LaHood poured it on. Toyotas were so safe that he told his daughter to buy a Sienna, which she did, he said. As for the reports – a clear vindication:
“The jury is back,” he announced. “The verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. Period.”
Even LaHood’s rigged jury didn’t go that far. Rather than exonerating Toyota electronics, the reports affirmed the lack of safety diagnostics, and found how the two signals in the accelerator pedal position sensor could be shorted in the real world – leading to an open throttle. The report actually said the opposite:
“Due to system complexity which will be described and the many possible electronic hardware and software systems interactions, it is not realistic to attempt to ‘prove’ that the ETCS-i cannot cause UAs. Today’s vehicles are sufficiently complex that no reasonable amount of analysis or testing can prove electronics and software have no errors. Therefore, absence of proof that the ETCS-i has caused a UA does not vindicate the system.”
When this discrepancy was mentioned at a meeting between safety advocates and the NHTSA and NASA teams that authored the reports, murmurs rippled around the conference room.
“Oh, that’s just Ray!” they chuckled.
The LaHood Seal of Safety on the Dreamliner didn’t impress Japanese officials. Japan airline companies are among Boeing’s biggest customers for the new craft, and the flying public there is very nervous. Rather than take Ray’s word on it, the Japan Transport Ministry treated these incidents as legitimate concerns and ordered its own investigation into the Dreamliner. The safety of the Dreamliners is being assessed in Japan by the Transport Safety Board and Civil Aviation Bureau.
“It worries me that these incidents are occurring on a daily basis,” Transport Minister Akihiro Ota said.