Lawmakers investigating the Federal Aviation Administration's oversight of Boeing Co. are questioning why the agency approved a design change for the 787 Dreamliner jet despite objections from its own experts.
The change involves removal of copper foil from part of the Dreamliner's wings, leading to a greater risk of fuel tank ignition from lightning strikes. The foil was designed to disperse the energy from such strikes, which are more common on planes like the Dreamliner, which Boeing builds with composite materials at plants in North Charleston and Everett, Wash.
FAA specialists believed the change failed to comply with a rule requiring Boeing to prove fuel tank ignitions would be extremely improbable, according to a letter Rep. Peter DeFazio sent to the agency Thursday seeking information.
FAA staff rejected the design change Feb. 22, 2019, according to DeFazio, who is chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The staff was overruled by agency management a week later when Boeing appealed the decision.
The FAA is now asking the planemaker to conduct risk assessments of fuel tank explosions due to the design change.
"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," DeFazio stated in the letter, which was also signed by Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Washington and chairman of the aviation subcommittee.
DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, said the FAA's action "seems woefully inadequate to ensure the safety of the flying public."
The letter also raises questions about the FAA's approval of cable separations on the 737 Max rudder that could result in loss of control if an engine blowout occurred. That issue is not related to the two fatal crashes that led to a worldwide grounding of the Max jet.
Boeing South Carolina spokesman Victor Scott said the company is aware of both issues raised in DeFazio's letter.
"We are confident that each was properly considered and addressed by Boeing, thoroughly reviewed with and approved by the FAA, and handled in full compliance with the processes governing review and disposition of such issues — processes that have led to continuous improvement in aviation safety," Scott said.
Concerns about the Dreamliner design change follow Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg's two days of testimony last week on Capitol Hill, where he faced often contentious questioning about the 737 Max crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.
Legislators want to know whether Boeing's relationship with the FAA has grown too cozy and whether the regulator has turned over too much oversight of design and certification of aircraft to the aerospace giant.
DeFazio said he was concerned that Boeing reportedly built 40 Dreamliners without the copper foil before the FAA had even approved the design change.
"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," DeFazio wrote.
Lightning strikes on aircraft are common, but those built with composite materials need protective coatings to mitigate their damage.
Two years ago, a British Airways 787 was struck by lightning shortly after it departed London's Heathrow airport. When the aircraft landed in India, inspectors discovered more than 40 holes in the fuselage from the strike.
DeFazio wants the FAA to answer a series of questions about how the Dreamliner's lightning protection change was approved and whether current planes are safe by Nov. 21.
Boeing's Dreamliner program in North Charleston has come under fire in the past year, with claims that safety is taking a back seat to production schedules.
Workers at the North Charleston plant have told The Post and Courier the local production line is riddled with mistakes, and those problems multiplied when Boeing increased Dreamliner production from 12 to 14 planes per month, split between North Charleston and the Everett, site.
Muilenburg recently said production will be cut back to 12 787 planes a month from 14 beginning next year due to slowing demand for wide-body jets.