Congress quiet on Dreamliner woes

Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner was in Tokyo last week to discuss a permanent fix for the 787 battery problems, which have not attracted much attention on Capitol Hill.

As Boeing, its airline customers and federal safety regulators struggled over the past two months to solve problems with the new 787 Dreamliner’s fire-plagued batteries, one player has been strangely silent: Congress.

Despite the plane’s grounding and the safety issues raised by its cutting-edge technology, there have been no congressional hearings or news conferences focusing on the problems, and little commentary from lawmakers who normally pounce at the first sign of trouble.

The unusual bipartisan silence reflects Boeing’s political clout, wielded by legions of lobbyists, fueled by hefty political campaign contributions and by the company’s importance as a huge employer and the nation’s single largest exporter.

The 787’s woes came up only briefly at the tail end of a recent hearing of the House aviation subcommittee.

The Senate Commerce Committee holds a hearing today on the FAA and its budget, during which members are expected to discuss aviation safety. The 787’s problems aren’t specifically on the agenda, but staffers say the issue is expected to be raised. No one from Boeing is scheduled to testify.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the commerce committee, said Boeing officials have implored him not to hold a hearing on the 787 batteries. “Their lobbyists have been saying that like crazy for weeks and weeks and weeks,” he said.

The problems with the 787’s batteries have raised alarms about the safety of Boeing’s new plane. In January, a battery in a 787 parked in Boston erupted in flames, and a smoking battery aboard another jet forced an emergency landing in Japan. The aircraft maker has spent more than $83 million on lobbying over the past five years, according to disclosure reports.

Boeing has been working hard in the background to keep lawmakers and their staffs in the loop about the 787 problems. Lobbyists, executives and engineers have provided frequent briefings on the company’s effort to fix the batteries and get the planes back in the air. Boeing CEO Jim McNerney has called or met with especially key players such as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.