* Questions about air tower closures
* Further study on use of electronics at takeoff
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, April 16 The top U.S. aviation
regulator said on Tuesday he expects to decide "very soon"
whether to approve Boeing Co's redesigned 787 Dreamliner
battery system, potentially ending a three-month ban on flights
by the high-tech jet.
Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta,
testifying to a congressional committee on air safety, said the
agency is reviewing tests and analysis submitted by Boeing and
will approve it when "we are satisfied Boeing has shown the
redesigned battery system meets FAA requirements."
Huerta told reporters after the hearing that he expects the
battery decision to be made "very soon."
Huerta said the FAA was working closely with the National
Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating battery
problems on two separate 787s in January, but would not
necessarily link its decision to an NTSB hearing next week.
"We're on our own timetable in terms of completing the
analysis," Huerta told reporters. "Once we're ready to move and
make a determination, we will."
He also told the committee the FAA was considering
separately whether to certify Boeing's 787 for extended-range
operations, known as ETOPS. The plane was approved for flights
over remote areas of up to 180 minutes when it was grounded for
two battery meltdowns in January.
Before the grounding, Boeing had requested an upgrade to 330
minutes, but Huerta told reporters the agency was "not
considering any expansion beyond that (180) at this time."
Separately on Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood
also acknowledged a decision on Boeing is expected soon. LaHood
was speaking at a dinner hosted by the Arab American Institute.
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL
In a wide-ranging hearing, senators raised concern about
Huerta's decision to close 149 air traffic control towers
without providing an assessment of the safety risk as committee
members requested. The closures of smaller towers would leave
pilots to sequence landings themselves via radio, without an
Huerta also warned the senators that air travelers should
expect "significant delays" from air traffic control furloughs
that are due to start April 21. He said the reductions in air
service would affect commercial, corporate and general aviation
travelers. But the agency will try to minimize the harm and "buy
back" furlough days for workers in coming months, to help keep
"We hope to buy back more of the furlough days as we're
able to. This is a not a one-shot deal. We're managing this on a
Air traffic control experts have said the furloughs,
prompted by sequestration-related budget cuts, would reduce
staffing at FAA-run air control facilities by about 10 percent.
That could prompt some busy airports to close runways and could
lead to delays in flights. Furloughs also are expected to affect
customs clearance and security screening at airports, leading to
long lines for those services.
At the hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and
Transportation committee, Senator Claire McCaskill argued
vehemently for dropping the ban on use of personal electronic
devices during takeoff and landing, arguing that similar rules
were not observed on general aviation flights. General aviation
covers all non-scheduled civil air services.
She said a print copy of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" arguably
posed more of a danger to a passenger than a Kindle version.
Committee Chairman Senator Jay Rockefeller and other senators on
the committee backed the request for more information on the
issue from the FAA.
McCaskill asked Huerta to find out if passengers on Air
Force One shut off electronics during take-off and landing.
"Because if it's safe enough for the president of the United
States, it's safe enough for the flying public," she said.
Huerta said he had asked the FAA's rulemaking committee to
look into the issue, noting that personal electronic devices had
evolved since the ban was first implemented. He said the
committee could make some initial recommendations by July.
But he stressed that the Federal Communications Commission
had jurisdiction over cell phone use on airliners, not the FAA.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said her agency had never
investigated an accident in which a passenger's personal
electronic device had interfered with an airplane's