U.S. officials defend handling of Boeing 787 mishaps

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Obama administration officials struggled Wednesday to defend their initial statements that the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is safe, while promising a transparent probe of mishaps involving the aircraft’s batteries.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stood by his Jan. 11 assertion that the 787, Boeing’s newest and most technologically advanced airliner, was safe. At that time, Mr. LaHood and the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Michael Huerta, declared the plane fit to fly despite a battery fire in one plane.

Five days later, following another battery mishap that led to an emergency landing of a 787 in Japan, Mr. LaHood and Mr. Huerta ordered United Airlines, the lone U.S. carrier with 787s, to ground the planes. Authorities in Europe and elsewhere — including Chile, Poland, Ethiopia, Qatar and India — swiftly followed suit. Two Japanese airlines voluntarily grounded their planes before the FAA’s order.

Overall, 50 Dreamliners have been grounded worldwide. The FAA’s order applies only to United’s six 787s.

“On the day we announced the planes were safe, they were,” Mr. LaHood told reporters at an aviation industry luncheon. He became testy when a reporter pressed him on whether his initial pronouncements had been too hasty.

A Japan Airlines Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" jet aircraft is surrounded by emergency vehicles while parked at a Terminal E gate at Logan International Airport in Boston on Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, following a fire that started in one of the plane's lithium ion batteries. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

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A Japan Airlines Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” jet aircraft is surrounded by emergency ... more >

“I’m not doing these hypothetical look-backs,” he said. “We did what we did.”

What changed between Jan. 11 and the FAA’s issuance of a grounding order on Jan. 16 was that a second battery failure occurred on an All Nippon Airways 787 while the airliner was in flight, said Mr. Huerta, who joined Mr. LaHood at the luncheon. In the first incident, the battery fire occurred in a Japan Airlines 787 that had already landed at Boston’s Logan International Airport and was empty of passengers.

“We took the action we took (to ground the planes) because we saw a hazard,” Mr. Huerta said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating the battery fire in Boston and has sent a representative to Japan to assist authorities there with their investigation of the second. The board so far has not said the battery problem would endanger the safety of the plane in flight or recommended that the planes be grounded.

The board’s technical experts are in possession of the battery that caught fire and are effectively performing an autopsy on its charred insides in a search for clues to what caused the conflagration. It took firefighters about 40 minutes to put out the fire.

The NTSB is the nation’s independent accident investigation board, while the FAA regulates aviation safety.

The FAA is working as quickly as possible to find the cause of the problems, assembling a team of technical experts that include those from industry as well as the agency’s staff, Mr. Huerta said. The review includes not just the 787’s ground-breaking lithium-ion battery system, but how that system works with the aircraft’s electronic systems and their certification, manufacture and assembly, he said.

Mr. Huerta declined to say when the FAA might lift the grounding order.

“We don’t know yet what caused these incidents yet. When we know the cause, we will take appropriate action,” he said.

The officials emphasized that the investigation would be completely transparent so that the public will have confidence in the outcome.

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