Undetected design flaws linked to airplane-crash deaths
WASHINGTON -- Failures to spot and anticipate safety flaws during certification of new aircraft have been linked to 70 percent of U.S. airline-crash deaths in the past 20 years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Boeing's tests concluding the lithium-ion batteries in its 787 Dreamliner couldn't catch fire are renewing questions about whether complexity of new aircraft can outpace manufacturers' and regulators' ability to spot shortcomings during design and certification.
"We don't know what we don't know," Bernard Loeb, who retired as head of the National Transportation Safety Board's aviation division in 2001, said in an interview. "We're still highly dependent on the knowledge and capability of the human being, and human beings are fallible."
Improved certification standards have been one reason there hasn't been a fatal U.S. crash involving a major airline since 2001, NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said in an interview.
"But there are occasions where those assumptions are incorrect or not conservative enough," she said. Hersman declined to comment on the current investigation.
In the absence of regulations for planes and components using new technology, the Federal Aviation Administration creates rules known as "special conditions," as it did in certifying the Dreamliner's batteries in 2007.
That approval, which the NTSB will examine at a hearing next month, illustrates the need to modernize standards for approving new aircraft, Kevin Hiatt, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation, said in an interview.
The manufacturer is confident in its 787 battery fix proposal and expects the plane to resume flights soon, Boeing Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jim McNerney said at a conference in Washington Thursday.
Boeing plans to conduct a flight test with the revamped battery within days, McNerney said.
The FAA, which announced a review of the 787's design on Jan. 11, "takes very seriously" its responsibility for overseeing new aircraft, the agency said in an emailed statement.
"Some have asked the question whether the FAA has the expertise needed to oversee the Dreamliner's cutting edge technology," the agency said. "The answer is yes, we have the ability to establish rigorous safety standards and to make sure that aircraft meet them."