February 04, 2013
Credit: Credit: AWST
Guy Norris Los Angeles and Jens Flottau Frankfurt and Kuala Lumpur
While the hunt for the root cause of the 787 battery problems continues, at least one aspect of Boeing's urgent recovery strategy is coming into sharper focus. The company remains adamant in its faith in the current lithium-ion technology and sees no fundamental reason to change its view as the pressure builds to return the airliner to service.
Despite the evidence from the Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways aircraft incidents in January, the latest signs indicate Boeing believes its best option for recovery is to modify the existing battery. If this remains the case, even after the root causes are known, the questions become: What extra safeguards are required? Will those satisfy the regulatory authorities? And how quickly can they be implemented? Among the modifications being examined by Boeing is a containment system for the 63-lb. battery improved to endure prolonged exposure to fire, as well as additional temperature monitors.
Officially, however, as the batteries continue to be inspected and torn down by the U.S. NTSB and Japan Transport Safety Board (JTSB), solutions remain elusive. For Boeing, the specter of certifying a new or replacement battery system and supporting hardware lingers, along with the inevitable lengthy certification effort and cost impact to the program.
Boeing is intent on steering clear of this fate, as indicated by CEO James McNerney during the company's Jan. 30 fourth-quarter results call. “Nothing we've learned yet has told us that we have made the wrong choice on the battery technology,” McNerney said, despite limitations imposed on him by the ongoing FAA, NTSB and JTSB investigations. “We feel good about the battery technology and its fit for the airplane.”
According to airline officials, the grounding caught Boeing completely by surprise. Sources close to the company say top management did not expect the agency to take the step because the FAA was in agreement with earlier design decisions. Even after the initial action was taken, Boeing expected the aircraft to be back in the air after as little as three days. It also requested permission to ferry stranded 787s to a central location to facilitate testing, as there is insufficient equipment—or in some cases none—at the involved airports, but the FAA turned down the request.
Behind the scenes, Boeing is emphasizing to its 787 customers that there are positives to be taken from the JAL and ANA events, which McNerney describes as being “very different” from each other. Beyond the obvious points—the JAL event occurred post-flight on the ramp at Boston, and the ANA incident happened in mid-flight—McNerney is likely referring more specifically to what investigators are learning from each failure. The APU battery on JAL's aircraft caught fire, while the forward-located main battery on ANA's, although badly damaged by burned electrolyte, is not yet confirmed by the JTSB as having caught fire.
According to airline sources, Boeing is saying that the JAL event, for instance, does not in fact show evidence of a classic “thermal runaway,” as described by the NTSB on Jan. 24, but was a more limited event in which only three of the battery's eight cells were involved in a chain reaction. Although the battery was completely gutted in the ensuing blaze, Boeing investigators believe the total damage resulted from long-term burning caused by the initial failure, not a full-scale thermal runaway.