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Senate to examine FAA approval of Dreamliner battery

An undamaged battery used in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet is seen in this picture provided by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board
An undamaged battery used in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet is seen in this picture provided by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A key Senate committee will hold a hearing in coming weeks to examine U.S. aviation safety oversight and the Federal Aviation Administration's decision to allow Boeing Co to use highly flammable lithium-ion batteries on board its new 787 Dreamliner, a congressional aide said on Tuesday.

U.S., Japanese and French authorities are investigating two separate cases in which lithium-ion batteries on board the new airliner failed. One of the batteries sparked a fire in a parked plane in Boston, while the other forced an emergency landing in Japan.

As a result, authorities around the world last week grounded all 50 Boeing 787s.

The Dreamliner, with a list price of $207 million, is the world's newest airliner, a lightweight, advanced carbon-composite design that has more electrical power than any other aircraft and uses 20 percent less fuel.

"Certainly the issues of FAA certification will be a key component of the aviation safety oversight hearing we're planning," an aide to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee told Reuters in an email.

The aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said committee chairman Senator John Rockefeller was "following the situation surrounding the Dreamliner and FAA's task force closely and he thinks the FAA and (Department of Transportation)are examining the issue carefully."

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is also keeping a close eye on the 787 investigations and the issue of FAA oversight, congressional aides said, although no formal hearings were planned at this point.

Boeing officials have briefed both oversight committees and other key lawmakers about the matter, a Boeing spokesman said.

The Senate committee had already been planning to conduct "substantial and aggressive oversight" of aviation safety during the first quarter, but would now look closely at the 787 incidents and FAA oversight as part of that process, the committee aide said.

Problems with the 787's lithium-ion battery have sparked questions about why the FAA in 2007 granted Boeing a "special condition" to allow use of the batteries on the plane, despite the fact that they are highly flammable and hard to extinguish if they catch fire.

Boeing designed a special system that was supposed to contain any such fire and vent toxic gasses outside the plane, but the two recent incidents have raised questions about whether that was a good decision.

It remains unclear what caused the batteries to fail, but when it announced plans to ground U.S.-based 787s, the FAA said both battery failures released flammable chemicals, heat damage and smoke - all of which could affect critical systems on the plane and spark a fire in the electrical compartment.

The FAA has said it will keep the 787s grounded until airlines demonstrate that the battery system is safe and complies with safety regulations.

(Editing by Gary Hill and Sandra Maler)

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