LaHood defends calling Boeing 787 'safe' prior to the FAA grounding planes

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday defended calling the Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" airplane safe before the planes were grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last week.

After a speech to the Washington Aero Club Wednesday, LaHood said his statements about the safety of the 787 were based on information that was available at the time he made them.

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"On the day we announced the planes were safe, they were," LaHood told reporters. "On the day that we announced that there was another incident and we were grounding the planes, we felt this was the time to ground the planes." 

After the FAA's initial announcement of a 787 review, but not suspension, LaHood maintained it was still safe to fly the airplanes.

The 787 was later grounded by the FAA after a pair of lithium batteries displayed the potential to spark electric fires.

"I believe this plane is safe and I would have absolutely no reservations of boarding one of these planes and taking a flight. These planes are safe," LaHood said during a news conference on Jan. 11, days prior to the FAA's decision to take the planes out of the skies.

At the time LaHood was making that declaration, an electrical fire that appeared to be caused by one of the batteries had already broken out on a 787. The incident was included in a group of problems that prompted the FAA to launch its initial review of the 787.

In addition to the batteries issues, another 787 developed a fuel leak, and the computers on a fourth plane wrongly indicated there was a problem with the brakes.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said after speaking to the Aero Club with LaHood that the agency waited until there was a second 787 battery incident to ground the planes because the first occurrence happened when the plane was on the ground.

"The second incident occurred in flight, and that for us was an important consideration where we needed to identify what is causing these power and battery related incidents and ensure that we taken every action to ensure they don't happen," Huerta said. 

Critics in the aviation industry have suggested the FAA's intervention into the roll-out of the 787 was an overreaction because problems are typical with new airplane models. 

Additionally, Boeing supporters argue the company has a large financial interest in quickly solving any problems with the 787.

But in the speech he delivered to the Aero Club on Wednesday, LaHood said the Department of Transportation had an obligation to step in.

"Our job at DOT is to ensure the safety of the flying public, and that's what we're doing," LaHood told the group.

"We need to get to the bottom of the recent issues with the batteries in the 787 and ensure their safety before these aircraft can be put back in service," he said at another point in his speech. "Our goal is to get this done as quickly as possible, but we must be confident that the problems are corrected before we can move forward."

LaHood also used his appearance at the Aero Club to express support for Boeing, which has maintained the safety of the 787 airplanes even as they have been taken out of service.

"As I've said before, I have confidence in Boeing's ability to create a safe aircraft," LaHood said of the Washington state-based airplane manufacturing company.

"Boeing is a very good company; one of America's finest companies," LaHood continued. "There's no doubt about that."  

The FAA has not yet provided a time frame for the conclusion of its 787 investigation.

After talking at length about the 787, LaHood, who is rumored to be leaving the Obama administration, declined to comment on how long he plans to remain Transportation secretary. 

"I doubt if anybody here wants to talk about that," LaHood said when he was asked about his future plans. "I don't have anything on that today."

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