Dreamliner's batteries not certified under current federal guidelines: Should they be?

Jan. 17, 2013 photo provided by the Japan Transport Safety Board shows the distorted main lithium-ion battery, left, and an undamaged auxiliary battery of the All Nippon Airways' Boeing 787 which made an emergency landing on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 at Takamatsu airport in Takamatsu, western Japan.
File,AP Photo/Japan Transport Safety Board

The lithium ion batteries used in Boeing's Dreamliner 787 may be perfectly safe. But they're not certified as such under current federal guidelines developed by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA). As the investigation into the Dreamliner's battery problems moves forward, one open question is whether that will change.

When the Dreamliner was in development, no commercial aviation guidelines existed for the cutting edge lithium ion battery technology it would be using. Instead, in Oct. 2007, the FAA granted Boeing what are called "special conditions" that said its system was sufficient.

The following year, in 2008, the RTCA -- a federal advisory board that issues guidelines -- did adopt standards for lithium ion batteries on commercial planes. In part, they require testing to prove that an overcharged, sparked battery will contain any explosion within its casing and contain all flames. Boeing was not required to meet the new standard because the FAA had already granted the special conditions.

It's unclear whether the FAA will require Boeing to meet the current standards now that the safety of its battery system has been called into question. However, any new aircraft planning to use the same batteries would have to meet the standard.

Boeing told CBS News that "the 787 was certified following the most rigorous test program in Boeing's history and the most robust certification program ever conducted by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration." As to the RTCA standards, Boeing says they "were not designed for the 787 and therefore do not take into account the robust Boeing requirements and specific 787 design features, which have been validated through testing. We provided extensive testing and analysis to show that the 787 met all requirements of the special condition."

One official who helped develop the RTCA guidelines told CBS News that based on the recent battery incidents that grounded the Dreamliner fleet, he doesn't believe its battery could meet the current standard. Another expert, John Goglia who once sat on the board of the NTSB told us it's an open question. Now that the Dreamliner is under review, "the FAA may very well hold them to the higher standard" before allowing the plane back in the air, says Goglia.

CBS News spoke with Deborah Hersman, who heads the National Transportation Safety Board, whether the NTSB might recommend Boeing meet the RTCA standards. She said the agency may speak to that question Wednesday when it gives an update on the investigation.

The current standard is called "DO-311." The section titled "Explosion Containment" dictates testing by overcharging a single cell closest to center to produce a spark at least once per second to ignite vented gases and a pressure transducer. All debris or fragmentation must be contained within casing. Peak pressure must remain at or below 80 percent of ultimate design strength of battery case. Rupture of the test unit is prohibited. According to the standard, venting of solid material and flames outside the test unit is prohibited.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.