The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration will decide “very soon” whether to allow Boeing Co. (BA)’s grounded 787 Dreamliner back in the air, Administrator Michael Huerta said.
Huerta, speaking to reporters after a congressional hearing on aviation safety, didn’t give a date for when the agency expects to render a decision. Boeing’s newest model has been grounded since Jan. 16, following a second incident in which a lithium-ion battery on the aircraft overheated.
“The FAA is reviewing the test reports and analysis and will approve the redesign once we are satisfied Boeing has shown the redesigned battery system meets FAA requirements,” Huerta said in his testimony.
The FAA also hasn’t decided how long to allow the 787 to fly between airports on over-water routes, Huerta said. The agency had allowed it to fly as many as 180 minutes from an airport before the grounding.
Boeing has finished its tests of a new lithium-ion battery that it says eliminates risks if batteries overheat, Huerta said.
Senators also questioned Huerta about the FAA’s plan to close 149 air-traffic towers run by contractors on June 15 under the automatic government budget cuts known as sequestration. No towers staffed by FAA-employed controllers will be closed before Sept. 30.
The FAA must cut $637 million from its $16 billion budget by Sept. 30. Because 70 percent of the agency’s spending is on salaries and benefits, “they will bear a significant portion of the cuts,” Huerta said.
Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, along with the committee’s senior Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, sent a letter to the Department of Transportation asking it to hold off closing the towers.
“I also share my colleagues’ frustration with the lack of transparency on how the agency made this decision and how it intends to implement the budget cuts,” Rockefeller said today.
The FAA decided to close the contract towers because less than 1 percent of commercial passengers fly at those airports and the agency wanted to limit the impact on airlines, Huerta said.
The FAA also consulted with the military to ensure it didn’t object to any of the tower closings, Huerta said. The agency doesn’t plan to close any towers that sometimes help guide flights going to airline hubs, he said.
“Well, you don’t give me a lot to report back to my 15 airports,” Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said after questioning Huerta.
Senators Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, and Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, have proposed legislation that would prevent FAA from closing any towers through Sept. 30, 2014. The bill has 30 sponsors, they said in a press release today.
Most of the FAA’s 47,000 employees will be required to take at least one unpaid day off every two weeks from April 21 through Sept. 30, Huerta said. The agency won’t compromise safety, Huerta said.
“As a result of employee furloughs and prolonged equipment outages resulting from lower parts inventories and fewer technicians, travelers should expect significant delays,” he said.
The furloughs also will affect airlines, aircraft manufacturers, repair facilities and pilots, because the agency will have fewer resources to process licenses and grant other approvals, he said.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, at a separate House hearing today, said the FAA won’t delay the contract-tower closings any further. “We don’t have the money to keep the towers open,” LaHood said. “We simply don’t.”
Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, urged Huerta to end the FAA’s prohibition on using electronic devices such as Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPad during some portions of airline flights. McCaskill said she hasn’t been able to find experts who say using such devices is dangerous.
“This is a great example of a rule that is arbitrary,” she said.
An FAA committee is exploring options to allow expanded use of devices on flights, Huerta said.
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