Exclusive: Japan eased safety standards ahead of Boeing 787 rollout
By Mari Saito and Tim Kelly
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's government stepped in to give Boeing Co's now-grounded 787 Dreamliner and its made-in-Japan technology a boost in 2008 by easing safety regulations, fast-tracking the rollout of the groundbreaking jet for Japan's biggest airlines, according to records and participants in the process.
The concessions by an advisory panel to Japan's transport ministry reflected pressure from All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL) and a push to support Japanese firms that supply 35 percent of the 787 from the carbon-fiber in its wings to sophisticated electrical systems and batteries used to save fuel, people involved in the deliberations told Reuters.
"I believe the request for the changes came initially from the airlines. Ultimately, it was a discussion of measures to lower operating costs for the airlines," said Masatoshi Harigae, head of aviation at Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency, one of the outside advisers who urged the eased regulatory standards.
There is no suggestion that easing regulatory standards contributed to the problems facing the Dreamliner, idled around the world after a string of malfunctions ranging from fuel leaks to battery meltdowns. There is also no evidence to suggest that continuing the mandate for more frequent manual inspections for new aircraft, including the Boeing 787, before 2008 would have helped catch signs of trouble earlier.
The looser regulations did not specifically address the risk of the Dreamliner's powerful batteries catching fire, the risk that safety investigators have zeroed in on in recent weeks.
But the steps taken by Japan's Civil Aviation Bureau in 2008 underscore how the deep commercial ties between Boeing and its Japanese suppliers and the backing of ANA and JAL helped build support for an easing of certification standards, based on a review of meeting records by the advisory panel released by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and comments from three of the seven experts who participated.
ANA and JAL declined to comment, deferring questions on regulatory standards to aviation officials and the ministry. Boeing in Tokyo said it couldn't immediately comment on the rule changes.
"We have not brought down our standards in comparison to other countries. This was a pragmatic revision," Tatsuyuki Shimazu, Chief Air Worthiness Engineer at the Civil Aviation Bureau, said. Continued...