The GAO Raises
Safety Concerns Over The Boeings 787
By Mike Mitchell
October 25, 2011 - Composite materials are made by
combining materials such as carbon fibers with epoxy,
they have been used in airplane components for decades.
Although composites are lighter and stronger than most
metals, their increasing use in commercial airplane
structures such as the fuselage and wings has raised
The Boeing's 787 is the first mostly composite large commercial transport airplane to undergo the certification process. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) certify new airplane designs and evaluate the airworthiness of novel features--like composite structures--against existing safety standards, which are often based on the performance of metallic airplanes.
2011, FAA and EASA certified the Boeing 787, which is expected
to enter commercial service in the fall of 2011. U.S. Government
Accountability Office (GAO) which is an independent, nonpartisan
agency that works for Congress, often called the "congressional
watchdog," was asked to review FAA's and EASA's certification
processes and FAA's oversight of the composite airplanes once
they enter service.
examined how FAA and EASA assessed the use of composite
materials in the Boeing 787 fuselage and wings, and the extent
to which FAA has addressed safety-related concerns associated
with the repair and maintenance of composite airplanes. The GAO
reviewed certification documentation, conducted a literature
search, discussed repair and maintenance issues with experts,
and interviewed FAA and EASA officials and Boeing
EASA, Boeing, and others provided technical comments, which the
GAO found that FAA followed its certification process in
assessing the Boeing 787 airplane's composite fuselage and wings
against applicable FAA airworthiness standards. The FAA applied
five special conditions when it found that its airworthiness
standards were not adequate to ensure that the composite
structures would comply with existing safety levels.
These special conditions require Boeing to take additional steps to demonstrate the 787's structures meet current performance standards. The FAA also granted Boeing an equivalent level of safety finding when the manufacturer determined it could meet the standard but prove it differently from the method specified in that standard.
On the basis of a
review of the FAA's special condition requirements, Boeing submissions,
and discussions with the FAA and Boeing officials the GAO found that FAA
followed its process by documenting the technical issues related to the
design of the composite fuselage and wings, determining the special
conditions and equivalent level of safety finding, obtaining public
comments on draft special conditions, and monitoring Boeing's compliance
with those conditions.
EASA also assessed
the use of composite materials in the Boeing 787 and relied on FAA to
oversee Boeing's compliance in some cases. EASA's process for
determining whether its existing airworthiness standards were adequate
to ensure the 787's composite fuselage and wings met current levels of
safety was similar to the FAA's special conditions process and resulted
in some additional review items, partly because of differences in their
On the basis of
expert interviews and a review of literature, the GAO identified four
key safety-related concerns with the repair and maintenance of
composites in commercial airplanes .
(1) Limited information on the
behavior of airplane composite structures.
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