Deborah Hersman, NTSB Chair, Could Face Difficult Questions From Senators On Dreamliner Grounding

04/16/2013 02:58 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2013

Deborah Hersman, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, may face tough questions from a Senate committee Tuesday during her testimony Tuesday on her role in the grounding of the Boeing Dreamliner airplane.

Hersman, who served as an NTSB board member during the Bush Administration and was appointed by President Barack Obama as chair in 2009, has been involved in an investigation following a January FAA order that all Boeing 787 Dreamliner passenger airplanes remain grounded. The order was given after a battery in one of the planes burst into flames and filled the cabin with smoke after landing at Logan airport in Boston, and a similar incident occurred on a plane in Japan.

According to financial disclosure documents [PDF] she filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, Hersman's husband is a software engineer at Lockheed Martin, Boeing's chief competitor for U.S. government contracts. The two own Lockheed Martin stock valued up to $15,000, in addition to Lockheed Martin equity funds valued well over $100,000.

In February, Hersman announced that regulators need to review the "special conditions" under which the FAA originally approved the use of the Dreamliner lithium ion batteries. The review grounded the planes for a longer period of time than initially assumed in order to review the batteries and ensure they are safe for flight.

In a letter to NTSB Designated Agency Ethics Official William Love [PDF], Hersman disclosed her husband's job and employer and stated that she would "not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that has a direct and predictable effect on my financial interests or those of any other person whose interests are imputed to me." Hersman goes on to specifically list her husband's "employment with Lockheed."

Breitbart News argued in February that Hersman may be caught up in a possible conflict of interest due to her husband's employment at Lockheed Martin and financial ties to the company. However, in an email to Breitbart News, NTSB Director of Public Affairs Kelly Nantel claimed that the Boeing airplanes were not grounded due to a conflict of interest. "The NTSB’s ethics attorneys have reviewed Chairman Hersman’s participation in the Boeing battery investigation. They concluded that her participation is fully consistent with her Ethics Agreement, dated June 29, 2011."

In an email Nantel reiterated to the Huffington Post that "There is no conflict of interest." She added that while the NTSB is investigating the cause of the Dreamliner battery fire, "The NTSB had no involvement in the decision to ground the fleet nor will it have involvement in the decision about when the 787 fleet can return to service."

The FAA approved fixes to the Dreamliner battery in early March, but a timeline to return the grounded plane to service has not been revealed. Published reports indicate that the plane could be up and running very soon.

According to a Los Angeles Times report in late March, Boeing stock has risen 14 percent this year. While the stock initially dropped following the FAA's decision to ground the Dreamliner, it has since rebounded. It was valued at $86.63 Tuesday.

Lockheed Martin has not produced a passenger airplane since the merger of Lockheed Corporation and Martin Marietta in March 1995. While Boeing competes with Lockheed Martin for government contracts, the Dreamliner has not been used in any bids.

Trent Flood, communications manager for Lockheed Martin, insisted that Hersman is in no way violating any ethics laws. "There is no conflict of interest," he said in an email. "Lockheed Martin is not competing or partnering with Boeing on the 787 Dreamliner."

Hersman is scheduled to testify before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Boeing did not respond to a request for comment.

This article was updated with comments from the NTSB and Lockheed Martin.

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