Boeing’s Dreamliner – Lots of questions, few answers

DreamlinerAfter this month’s grounding of the world’s entire fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliner airplanes, the shock waves are spreading through Boeing, airlines worldwide, aerospace subcontractors, and even Boeing rival Airbus. The global fleet of Dreamliners was grounded in January following two separate lithium-ion battery fires on 787s in Japan and Boston. In the US, the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are reviewing the incidents and working with Boeing to determine what modifications can be made to the batteries and their fire-containment components.

The exact cause of the battery fires remains unknown, and some industry watchers say it could take weeks or even months to determine the cause and fix the planes. The hardest hit, initially, in such a scenario might be All Nippon Airways, which operates a total of 17 787s, or nearly 35 percent of all Dreamliners in service. Reuters estimates the 787s’ grounding could be costing All Nippon Airways $1 million per day. United Continental Holdings‘ United Airlines is the only US carrier that currently operates 787s, with a fleet of six.

The maker of the Dreamliner’s lithium-ion batteries, GS Yuasa, is the center of a probe by Japan’s Transport Ministry, but other Boeing suppliers are also part of the complicated investigations. US authorities are looking into United Technologies’ UTC Aerospace Systems subsidiary, which built the 787’s auxiliary power controller. UK-based Meggit PLC’s Securaplane subsidiary is also part of the investigations; the company makes electrocomponents used in the 787’s batteries.

As for Boeing, the battery investigation could result in a change to an alternate type of battery, new testing, and certification. Some aviation experts question if lithium-ion batteries should be used in aircraft applications at all. They argue the inherent chemistry of lithium-ion technology makes them unstable and prone to fires if overcharged, over-discharged, or overheated. Of the 33 times batteries have ignited on aircraft since 2009, 80 percent of those instances involved lithium-ion batteries, according to the FAA. The International Civil Aviation Organization updated its stringent rules on lithium-ion batteries as cargo as recently as this month after separate incidents on two Boeing 747 freight aircraft and a DC-8. Still, Boeing remains confident in its battery technology. Boeing settled on lithium-ion technology for the 787 in 2005 because compared to nickel-cadmium, lithium-ion is lighter, provides a large amount of energy, and can be quickly recharged.

As for Airbus, executives at Boeing’s only commercial aircraft rival are worried the 787’s troubles could have a ripple effect through the aircraft certification process. The Dreamliner’s problems could lead the FAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency to strengthen the testing and certification process for new aircraft, which would slow Airbus’ efforts to bring its A350 airliner to market. The A350 is Airbus’ answer to the Dreamliner and is aimed at getting the company back on track with a new long-haul aircraft offering.

With the high level of publicity the grounding of the Dreamliner has received, the verdict on the safety of lithium-ion batteries in aviation applications may ultimately be decided by frequent flyers voting with their feet.

For more information about the challenges, trends, and opportunities affecting the global aerospace and airline industries, check out the new international information on First Research (subscribers, click the “International” tab).

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Photo by Pyonko Omeyama, used under a Creative Commons license.

 

James Bryant

James Bryant is a writer and editor for the First Research team at Hoover's.

Read more articles by James Bryant.

Comments

  1. Rebecca Mallett Rebecca Mallett says:

    Great post, James. The statistics you provide about lithium-ion batteries igniting on planes is pretty concerning. It will be interesting to see if Boeing opts for another battery technology. Please keep us updated on the investigation.

  2. Insightful post, James. As a companion piece, I recommend people reading this post from Manufacturing.net. Gives a lot of background on the Dreamliner project:

    The 787 Dreamliner was born in a moment of desperation.

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