787 battery issue raises stakes for aviation safety: NTSB chair

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As the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continues searching for a root cause of the Boeing 787 battery failures in January, the board's chairman warns the incident offers a sobering lesson for the commercial aviation industry.

"Here's what strikes me about the 787 battery story, which is still to be fully told," Deborah Hersman tells the New York Wing's Club luncheon today. "It's a sign of how risk intolerant we have become. As air travel becomes safer and safer the tolerance for risk [and] for failure is reduced."

Hersman notes how the 787 was the first commercial aircraft grounded by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 34 years. The grounding of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 fleet in 1979 came after the crash of American Airlines flight 191, which killed 271 people.

"Look at the biggest difference between this grounding and the last FAA grounding in 1979 - no one died," Hersman says. "We live in a different era now."

The public now has a higher standard for an air traffic system that has witnessed no fatal accidents involving scheduled passenger flights in 53 months.

"There are higher standards today and greater expectations - much greater," Hersman stresses.

Tensions rose between NTSB officials and Boeing executives during the 787 grounding, with the safety agency publicly rebuking a Boeing executive for discussing details of an ongoing battery investigation during a press conference in Tokyo, Japan.

In his responses to questions posed by reporters, Boeing 787 chief project engineer Mike Sinnett challenged the NTSB's previous statements describing an explosion on board the parked Japan Airlines 787 in Boston.

Sinnett also quibbled with the NTSB's conclusion that the battery experienced a "thermal runaway" condition, saying that definition was not true at the aircraft level and the 787 was never in danger of sustaining damage beyond the immediate area around the battery enclosure.

Hersman did not directly reference any statements by Boeing executives in her remarks at the Wing's Club, but it was clear the NTSB intends to hold the industry to a higher standard of safety, and that fatal crashes are no longer the only triggering events for costly interventions by the FAA and safety overseers.

"With the reduced tolerance for risk and the public's high expectations, every player, every team must come to the field with their 'A-game' ready to play," Hersman says, "and ready to respect the calls whether they are balls or strikes."