The FAA admits it’s relaxing lightning protection standards for commercial aircraft because manufacturers, notably Boeing with the 787, can’t meet the rules that have been in place since 2001. “To this day, we have not had one manufacturer that has been able to demonstrate compliance with that rule,” Ali Bahrami, head of the FAA’s Seattle office dealing with commercial-airplane certification, told the Seattle Times. “We decided it’s time to re-evaluate our approach.” In the 787’s case, that re-evaluation involves allowing a single level of spark protection for some parts in the fuel tanks and wings rather than the triple redundancy that the 2001 rule requires. The FAA and Boeing argue that a new system that will pump inert nitrogen into the void of emptying fuel tanks more than makes up for the lessened spark protection but FAA inspectors, many of them former Boeing employees, have formally challenged that view.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents about 190 FAA engineers, submitted a formal critique to the agency saying the relaxed standards put the 787 “on failure away from catastrophe.” While the engineers say the tank inerting system is a big improvement, they note that the aircraft’s certification will allow it to fly without the system operating if it breaks down. The FAA intends to give airlines operating the 787 up to 10 days to fix the nitrogen system rather than grounding the aircraft. Boeing insists the 787 will be the most lightning-resistant aircraft ever made but detractors say the relaxed regulations are a mistake. “It appears that management has overruled the judgment of the people that have day-to-day responsibility for the safety of aircraft,” former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall told the Times. Hall oversaw the investigation into the explosion of TWA Flight 800, which was downed by a suspected fuel-tank explosion in 1996, killing 230 people. The 2001 regulation changes were a direct result of that investigation.