Aviation Safety: Status of FAA's Actions to Oversee the Safety of Composite Airplanes

GAO-11-849 Published: Sep 21, 2011. Publicly Released: Oct 20, 2011.
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Composite materials, made by combining materials such as carbon fibers with epoxy, have been used in airplane components for decades. Although composites are lighter and stronger than most metals, their increasing use in commercial airplane structures such as the fuselage and wings has raised safety concerns. Boeing's 787 is the first mostly composite large commercial transport airplane to undergo the certification process. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) certify new airplane designs and evaluate the airworthiness of novel features--like composite structures--against existing safety standards, which are often based on the performance of metallic airplanes. In August 2011, FAA and EASA certified the 787, which is expected to enter commercial service in the fall of 2011. GAO was asked to review FAA's and EASA's certification processes and FAA's oversight of the composite airplanes once they enter service. GAO examined how FAA and EASA assessed the use of composite materials in the Boeing 787 fuselage and wings, and the extent to which FAA has addressed safety-related concerns associated with the repair and maintenance of composite airplanes. GAO reviewed certification documentation, conducted a literature search, discussed repair and maintenance issues with experts, and interviewed FAA and EASA officials and Boeing representatives. GAO is not making recommendations in this report. FAA, EASA, Boeing, and others provided technical comments, which

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