Boeing removed a feature that protects its 787 planes during lightning strikes as a cost-cutting measure, even after FAA experts objected

sbaker@businessinsider.com (Sinéad Baker)
plane lightning

SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Boeing removed a feature that protects its 787 planes during lightning strikes even after Federal Aviation Administration experts objected, The Seattle Times reported.
  • The FAA approved the change after Boeing appealed its rejection, which had said Boeing could not sufficiently prove that the fuel tank would not ignite.
  • The FAA's decision will today be scrutinized by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in light of its oversight of Boeing's 737 Max planes, which was involved in two fatal crashes. 
  • Rep. DeFazio, chair of the committee, said in a November letter to the FAA that both issues "suggest that the opinions and expert advice of the F AA's safety and technical experts are being circumvented or sidelined."
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Boeing removed a feature that protects its 787 planes during lightning strikes as a cost-cutting measure even after technical experts from the Federal Aviation Administration experts objected, according to a new report from The Seattle Times.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will today grill FAA Administrator Steve Dickson about why the FAA's managers ultimately approved the change, which involved removing copper foil from part of the 787 Dreamliner's wings.

Chairman Peter DeFazio, a representative for Oregon, said in a letter to the FAA in November that the committee had received "information and documents suggesting Boeing implemented a design change on its 787 Dreamliner lightning protection features to which multiple FAA specialists ultimately rejected."

He said that the removal of the copper foil could "increase the number of ignition sources in the fuel tanks" in the event of lightning strikes.

The Seattle Times reported that Boeing designed the Dreamliner, which first started flying in 2009, with both an insulating cap and the copper foil on the wings to protect the plane during lightning strikes.

FILE PHOTO: Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) speaks during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee hearing on

Reuters

But Boeing "quietly" stopped adding the insulating caps five years ago, and stopped adding the copper foil in March of this year, the Times reported.

The FAA first rejected Boeing's proposal to remove the foil in February, according to The Seattle Times. It then ruled that Boeing had not shown that the fuel tank igniting when it was hit by lightning was "extremely improbable."

But the Times reported that around 40 sets of the plane's wings had already been built without the foil at that stage.

DeFazio said in his November letter: "If accurate, that is an astonishing fact that suggests either willful neglect of the Federal aviation regulatory structure or an oversight system in need of desperate repair."

He also noted: "Lightning strikes on aircraft are a fairly routine occurrence."

Boeing appealed the FAA's decision, which it then reversed one week later, allowing the planes to fly with the changes, the Times reported.

boeing 787 dreamliner

Randall Hill/Reuters

Thomas Thorson, a senior FAA safety engineer, formally objected to the FAA's reversal, the Times reported.

"I do not agree that delivery schedules should influence our safety decisions and areas of safety critical findings, nor is this consistent with our safety principles," he wrote.

Boeing said in a statement to The Seattle Times that the 787 has "several other layers of protection from lightning strikes" and that each design change "was properly considered and addressed by Boeing, thoroughly reviewed with and approved by the FAA."

DeFazio's November letter said that the FAA asked Boeing to perform a risk assessment of the change to "determine if any corrective actions to reduce the risk of a fuel tank explosion should be required."

He said the committee was "deeply concerned" by this:

"While we appreciate that the FAA is finally taking some action on this issue, we are deeply concerned that the agency is just now asking Boeing to provide analysis to enable the FAA 'to determine if any corrective actions' are required.

"It appears Boeing took actions that may have violated FAA requirements in the first place by taking unilateral steps to change the design of the aircraft's lightning protection system.

"Asking Boeing to now review its own work in the aftermath of those events, if true, to help the FAA determine what corrective actions Boeing may need to take seems woefully inadequate to ensure the safety of the flying public."

Scrutiny of the 787 comes as the FAA faces heavy scrutiny over the 737 Max, which is the main subject of Wednesday's House hearing with the FAA administrator.

The FAA gave Boeing a lot of control over the certification of the 737 Max, which went on to be involved in two fatal crashes that killed 346 people. The crashes revealed design issues with the plane and left the aircraft grounded around the world while Boeing works on an update. 

FAA administrator Stephen Dickson

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

This certification delegation is in line with the FAA's practices as approved by Congress over the years, but it has come under renewed political scrutiny.

DeFazio said in his letter that both the 737 Max and the changes to the 787 "suggest that the opinions and expert advice of the FAA's safety and technical experts are being circumvented or sidelined while the interests of Boeing are being elevated by FAA senior management."

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