Regulators Around the Globe Ground Boeing 787s

New York Times — Regulators around the globe ordered the grounding of Boeing 787s on Thursday until they could determine what caused a new type of battery to fail on two planes in recent days, resulting in an emergency landing on Wednesday and a fire last week.

The directives in Europe, India and Japan followed an order Wednesday by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration grounding the planes operated by U.S. carriers.

The decisions are a result of incidents involving a plane that was parked in Boston and one in Japan that had to make an emergency landing this week after an alarm warning of smoke in the cockpit.

In Japan on Thursday, the transportation ministry issued a formal order to ground all 787s indefinitely, until concerns over the aircraft’s battery systems are resolved. All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines had already voluntarily grounded their 787s on Wednesday, leading to more than two dozen canceled flights.

European safety regulators also said they would ground Dreamliners, affecting LOT of Poland, the only carrier that operates the jets in that region. In India, the aviation regulator grounded all six of the 787s operated by the state-owned carrier Air India.

LAN Airlines of Chile said it was following suit, acting in coordination with the Chilean Aeronautical Authority.

And on Thursday, Qatar Airways said it would follow the F.A.A.’s decision and ground its five 787s, effective immediately.

The F.A.A.’s emergency directive, issued Wednesday night, initially applies to United Airlines, the only American carrier using the new plane so far, with six 787s.

Boeing, based in Chicago, has a lot riding on the 787, and its stock dropped nearly 3.4 percent Wednesday to $74.34. The company has outlined ambitious plans to double its production rate to 10 planes a month by the end of 2013. It is also starting to build a stretch version and considering an even larger one after that.

“We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity,” Jim McNerney, Boeing’s chief executive, said in a statement.

The grounding — an unusual action for a new plane — focuses on one of the more risky design choices made by Boeing, namely to make extensive use of lithium-ion batteries aboard its airplanes for the first time.

Until now, much of the attention on the 787 was focused on its lighter composite materials and more efficient engines, meant to usher in a new era of more fuel-efficient travel, particularly over long distances. The batteries are part of an electrical system that replaces many mechanical and hydraulic ones that are common in previous jets.

The 787’s problems could jeopardize one of its major features, its ability to fly long distances at a lower cost. The plane is certified to fly 180 minutes from an airport. The U.S. government is unlikely to extend that to 330 minutes, as Boeing has promised, until all problems with the plane have been resolved.

For Boeing, “it’s crucial to get it right,” said Richard L. Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. “They’ve got a brief and closing window in which they can convince the public and their flying customers that this is not a problem child.”

In Japan on Thursday, government investigators examined the 787 that made the emergency landing. Footage on the public broadcaster, NHK, showed officials removing a charred and swollen lithium-ion battery pack from the front of the plane.

Corrosive liquid appeared to have leaked out of the batteries, leaving streaks on their blue casing, said Hideo Kosugi, a safety official who is head of the inquiry. Investigators also found black discolorations outside exhaust vents on the plane, which suggested that there had been smoke inside the aircraft at one point.

“The batteries have retained their basic shape, but are black all over,” Mr. Kosugi said. Something caused the battery to overheat and spew liquid, he added, “but we still do not know what is the cause.”

The 787 uses two identical lithium-ion batteries, each about one and a half to two times the size of a typical car battery. One battery, in the rear electrical equipment bay near the wings, is used to start the auxiliary power unit, a small engine in the tail that is used most often to provide power for the plane while it is on the ground. The other battery, called the main battery, starts the pilot’s computer displays and serves as a backup for flight systems.

The maker of the 787’s batteries, GS Yuasa of Japan, has declined to comment on the problems.

Boeing has defended the novel use of the batteries and said it had put in place a series of systems meant to prevent overcharging and overheating.

In a conference call last week with reporters, Boeing’s chief engineer for the 787, Mike Sinnett, said that the company had long been aware of possible problems with lithium-ion batteries but that it had built in numerous redundant features to keep any problems with the batteries from threatening the plane in flight. He said that the batteries had not had any problems in 1.3 million hours of flight and that Boeing was trying to understand what had caused the problems.

Mr. Sinnett said that if the lithium-ion batteries started a fire, it would be nearly impossible to put out because the batteries produce oxygen when burning. Mr. Sinnett said that the plane was designed to survive such an event in flight, when the cabin’s air-pressure system protects passengers and allows the plane to vent the smoke outside. The plane is also designed, he said, to contain a fire to a small area.

“Fire suppressants just won’t work on a situation like that,” he said in the conference call. “So something like that is very difficult to put out.”

Heat from the fire on the plane parked in Boston last week was so extreme that it melted the bolts holding the battery to the equipment rack. Firefighters had to use a hydraulic tool to cut it loose.

The solutions to the battery problem could be simple, analysts said, like encasing the battery in a stronger shell or monitoring the batteries more closely. But if Boeing had to switch to more conventional nickel-cadmium or lead-acid batteries, they would have to be larger, adding more weight to the plane and cutting into the plane’s fuel-savings potential.

The emergency landing Wednesday was the latest in a string of incidents for the 787, which also included an electrical failure, fuel leaks and other smaller mishaps. But the latest event raised concerns that the 787’s problems were potentially more serious than thought.

Lithium-ion batteries provide power more quickly than conventional batteries and can be recharged quickly. They are increasingly used in cellphones, computers and electric cars but also have known risks of fires and explosions, particularly if they overheat or overcharge.

While the Federal Aviation Agency has recognized these hazards, it still decided in 2007 to allow Boeing to use them in the 787 as long as the company took a series of protective measures.

At the time, the agency noted that “lithium ion batteries are significantly more susceptible to internal failures that can lead to self-sustaining increases in temperature and pressure” than conventional batteries.

As part of the emergency directive Wednesday, the U.S. government said it would “validate that the 787 batteries and the battery system on the aircraft are in compliance with the special condition the agency issued as part of the aircraft’s certification.”

Eight airlines now fly the 787, which entered service in November 2011. All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines in Japan own 24 of them in total. The other operators are Air India, Ethiopian Airlines, LAN Airlines of Chile, LOT of Poland and Qatar Airways. Orders for about 800 additional 787s are in the pipeline.

The airplane’s six power generators produce enough electricity to power 500 houses. By contrast, the Boeing 777, a larger aircraft, can generate only a fifth of the 787’s electric power.

Replacing batteries on the 787 with different ones, like metal hydride batteries, is theoretically possible but would be costly, said Hans J. Weber, the president of Tecop International, an aviation consulting firm.

He estimated that different batteries could double the weight of the current systems and would be twice the size.

“It’s not trivial, but it could be done,” Mr. Weber said.

Boeing expects to sell 5,000 787s in the next 20 years. It is counting on the Dreamliner in the global sales battle with Airbus, its European rival, which plans to introduce its own carbon-composite plane, the A350, in the second half of 2014. Boeing has said that it outsourced too much of the work on the 787 to suppliers who were willing, collectively, to cover billions of dollars of the development costs, and that many parts needed reworking.

Boeing has said it expects profit percentages averaging in the low single digits on the first 1,100 planes, which could include deliveries into 2021. But David E. Strauss, an analyst at UBS, cautioned last month that Boeing’s production costs might remain too high for it to make a profit on any of the plane sales before 2021.

While problems are common with the introduction of a new model — including the Airbus A380, the Boeing 777 and the Boeing 747 — analysts say the issue could become a growing embarrassment for Boeing if travelers or airlines began to lose confidence in the Dreamliner.

Posted on January 17, 2013
Photo Credit: Reuters
New York Times | Regulators Around the Globe Ground Boeing 787s

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