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Transportation Secretary LaHood on the Boeing Dreamliner grounding

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WASHINGTON -- Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in an interview Tuesday, defended his handling of the battery failures leading to the grounding of the new Boeing Dreamliner 787 fleet.

LaHood said he made no mistakes -- including on Jan. 11 vouching for the safety of Dreamliners after a fire broke out Jan. 7 in a lithium-ion battery in a JAL 787 parked at Boston's Logan Airport.

On Jan. 16, a 787 made an emergency landing in Japan after a similar battery was smoking, leading to the FAA grounding order the same day.

"People know that I get up every day and think about safety and I think my record over four years shows that," he told me.

LaHood on Tuesday announced his departure, saying he will serve until his successor is confirmed.

The former Peoria lawmaker, a buddy of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was the only Republican in President Barack Obama's Cabinet. Emanuel cleared the way for the appointment when he was Obama's chief of staff. LaHood and Emanuel talk two or three times a week, LaHood told me.

The Dreamliner battery failure is one of the most serious safety issues occurring on LaHood's watch.

Last week, Deborah Hersman, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said "the expectation in aviation is to never experience a fire on board an aircraft. In two weeks' time, we saw two cases of battery failures on the 787 and the grounding of the entire fleet by the FAA. The significance of these events cannot be understated."

I asked LaHood why he vouched for the Dreamliners on Jan. 11 and he said that on that day, "it was safe to fly." After the second battery failed, "it was time for us to say to Boeing, 'Ground those planes, let's do a top to bottom review,' so look it, I have no regrets about any of that."

LaHood said he's had no pressure from Boeing -- headquartered in Chicago -- to try to speed up the various investigations.

"They got to get this right and we want them to get it right," he said.

Would Boeing be crippled if the groundings went on for some time? "No, not at all," LaHood said. "Boeing is a great company. They know how to make airplanes. They will fix this."

I asked LaHood about Hersman's strong remarks.

"It's a completely new plane," LaHood said, commenting on the Dreamliner design. "It's an electronic plane using lithium batteries.

"So the idea that when you develop new technology and you develop a new product, you're not going to have bugs, it's just the way things work."

The prospect of having a battery on fire or smoking on an airplane was horrifying, I said to LaHood.
"That's why we grounded them. . . . All the smartest people in the world are trying to figure out what the fix is here and what went wrong and eventually they will."

On his departure, LaHood told me he met with President Barack Obama about 10 days after the election and told him he was "really conflicted" over whether he wanted to stay for a second term because he loved the job.
Obama "asked me to think about it for a while, which I did," but his wife of 45 years, Kathy, was "ready for me to move on," so LaHood, 67, will soon start the next chapter of his life.

LaHood will still call Peoria home, but will be anchored in D.C. as he scouts out business opportunities, perhaps serving on corporate boards. One of his sons, Darin, is a GOP state senator from a central Illinois district.

Through his tenure, LaHood has done very well for Illinois, sending federal dollars home for high-speed rail, O'Hare Airport modernization, Emanuel's river walk and last week granting final federal approval of the Elgin-O'Hare toll road.

And if you are wondering: Last March, LaHood pulled a GOP Illinois primary ballot -- voting for his son, but not a GOP presidential candidate. In November, LaHood voted for Obama.

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