By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Jan 24 (Reuters) - The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is looking at issues raised by more than one whistleblower as it investigates battery failures that have grounded the global fleet of 50 Boeing Co 787 Dreamliners for a week.
Michael Leon, one of the whistleblowers, said he spoke with an NTSB investigator this week and gave him extensive materials about his claim that he was fired around six years ago for raising safety concerns about Securaplane Technologies Inc., an Arizona company that makes chargers for the highly flammable lithium-ion batteries at the heart of the probe.
In an interview with Reuters on Wednesday and in earlier court papers, Leon said Securaplane was rushing to ship chargers that by his assessment did not conform to specifications and could have malfunctioned.
A federal administrative judge later dismissed Leon’s complaints after concluding he was fired for repeated misconduct, according to court documents. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) concluded that the pieces of equipment he complained about were never installed in the aircraft, as they were prototypes.
Leon appealed the federal court’s ruling in 2011, but no decision has been reached.
Now the NTSB is taking a closer look at some safety concerns people have previously raised as part of a widening investigation by U.S., Japanese and French authorities into two 787 battery failures this month. One involved a fire on a parked 787 at Boston airport, the other forced a second 787 to make an emergency landing in Japan.
Kelly Nantel, NTSB director of public affairs, confirmed the NTSB was pursuing information provided by “more than one” whistleblower, but declined comment on any specific cases.
“We have been notified about whistleblowers and are pursuing that information where warranted,” Nantel told Reuters, adding it was “not uncommon” for individuals to come forward with information during such investigations. The number and identity of other possible whistleblowers being interviewed in the 787 case remained unclear.
A team of U.S. safety investigators this week visited the Tucson, Arizona facility of Securaplane, a unit of Britain’s Meggitt Plc, where Leon worked before he was fired.
The company declined comment on the NTSB investigation, but spokeswoman Fiona Greig told Reuters in an email: “There is no connection between the Dreamliner battery issue and Michael Leon’s dismissal from Securaplane.”
Boeing says a two-year multi-agency investigation concluded that an explosion that sparked a huge fire that burned a three-story administrative building to the ground at the Securaplane facility in 2006 was caused by an improper test set-up, not the battery design.
The Senate Commerce, Technology and Transportation Committee said on Tuesday that it plans a hearing on aviation safety in coming weeks that will look closely at the Boeing 787 problems and the FAA’s certification process.
Representative Rick Larsen, who was appointed this week to be the top Democrat on the House Aviation Subcommittee, told Reuters his committee would probably look at the FAA’s certification issues as well.
Peter Knudson, spokesman for the NTSB, declined comment on any findings from the visit to Securaplane’s Tucson facility. He said the safety board collected information from a variety of sources during the course of any investigation. “We’re looking at everything that could have played some role in this battery mishap,” he told Reuters. “There’s a lot yet to learn.”
Leon, a 53-year old ex-paratrooper, claimed in his whistleblower case that he was unfairly targeted, racially profiled and ultimately fired after raising concerns that Securaplane wanted to ship battery chargers to Boeing that did not conform to product specifications. The company denied the allegations.
Securaplane hired Leon as a senior engineering technician in 2004, the same year it won the contract to work on the 787 parts. The company, which was taken over by Meggitt in April 2011, makes three important battery-related systems for the 787 as a subcontractor to France’s Thales SA.
The lithium-ion battery is made by Japan’s GS Yuasa Corp , while Thales is responsible for electric power conversion on the 787, the world’s newest and most electricity-driven airliner. The auxiliary power unit (APU), which powers the airplane’s systems when it is on the ground, is built by a unit of United Technologies Corp.
The Securaplane spokeswoman declined to give details about the value of the company’s contract with Thales for work on the 787, saying those details were confidential. She said she was not aware of any other whistleblower case filed by a Meggitt or Securaplane employee.
Securaplane said it makes two battery charging units used on the 787, one for the APU battery in an aft bay, and one for the main ship battery used in a forward bay, which provides backup power for flight critical controls.
In his lawsuit, and in the interview with Reuters, Leon said he raised concerns about the safety of the lithium-ion battery that he was using for testing about two weeks before it suddenly exploded in November 2006.
Leon said he tried to put out the fire using halon, a liquefied compressed gas, but parts of the battery kept reigniting. The fire “rattled the workforce” at Securaplane, according to the judge who dismissed Leon’s claim, after concluding that Securaplane had proved Leon was fired for repeated misconduct, including hostile behavior, not any safety complaints, court documents show.
Leon said he refused to ship chargers that he believed had short-circuits, but company officials told him they needed to rush out the orders or risk losing the contract with Thales.
Company officials have repeatedly disputed his account.
The FAA looked into Leon’s complaints in 2008 and 2009, but concluded that the equipment he had expressed concerns about were prototypes that were never installed on the 787, spokesman Laura Brown said. She added the FAA also determined that Securaplane’s production of a particular printed circuit board complied with FAA requirements.