U.S. officials and Boeing Co. are investigating whether defective batteries from the same batch caused incidents in two 787 Dreamliners that triggered the plane’s worldwide grounding, according to two people familiar with the incidents.
If that proves to be true, it could show a flaw causing the incidents was confined to a small number of 787s, rather than a systemic fault with the plane’s engineering, design or manufacturing, and could speed the resumption of flights on the jet. The people, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly, said the information is preliminary and investigators haven’t yet ruled out other causes.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which certified the plane in 2011, ordered flights on the 787 halted until airlines can show the plane’s lithium-ion batteries “are safe and in compliance,” according to an agency statement. It didn’t say how the carriers should accomplish that.
The FAA’s move, its first in 34 years to ground an entire plane model, set off a race to find and fix whatever caused the battery-fault warning on a 787 operated by All Nippon Airways Co. and a fire on a Japan Airlines Co. jet. The two Japanese airlines yesterday parked their 24 787s, almost half the global fleet, after the battery warning forced pilots of an ANA domestic flight to make an emergency landing.
“Nobody knows what the fix is because they don’t know what the problem is,” John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said in an interview.
Accident investigative agencies in the U.S. and Japan, as well as the FAA, haven’t said what started the fires.
The batteries were made by Kyoto, Japan-based GS Yuasa Corp., which has said the Dreamliner’s faults may go beyond the batteries.
Marc Birtel, a spokesman for Chicago-based Boeing, said he couldn’t comment on anything related to the investigation. Peter Quinlan, a spokesman for GS Battery Inc., a unit of GS Yuasa in Roswell, Georgia, declined to comment. He referred questions to Thales SA, the French company that manufactures the Dreamliner’s electrical-power conversion system, which includes the batteries.
A flaw in a battery, such as a manufacturing defect that allowed the flammable liquid inside to leak, might trigger a fire in one battery cell that would then ignite other cells within the pack, according to tests on generic batteries conducted by the FAA.
While the U.S. order affects only six planes, all flown by United Continental Holdings Inc., it led to a worldwide grounding of the 787 as the FAA’s counterparts in Japan, India and Chile ordered Dreamliners in their countries out of service.
LOT Polish Airlines SA, Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise and Qatar Airways Ltd. also said they’d suspend service of 787s. LOT’s 787 was left stranded in Chicago following its maiden trans-Atlantic flight. The European Aviation Safety Agency said it adopted the FAA directive.
The FAA last ordered an entire model grounded in 1979, when it revoked certification of the Douglas DC-10 after inspections discovered wing damage similar to what led to a crash in Chicago that killed 271 people. The order was lifted a month later.
“We’ve become so safe in commercial aviation that the public expects perfection,” John McGraw, a retired FAA official who served in the agency’s safety and certification offices, said in an interview. “Because of that, the perception of a safety risk becomes even a bigger factor with a malfunction like this.”
Before yesterday’s ANA incident, the U.S. safety board was investigating a Jan. 7 fire in Boston aboard a Japan Airlines plane that had just arrived from Tokyo. A lithium-ion battery pack in the belly of the jet ignited and it took airport firefighters 40 minutes to extinguish, according to an NTSB press release.
The battery warning aboard the ANA 787 was on a different pack located beneath the nose.
“The battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage, and smoke on two Model 787 airplanes,” the FAA said in a statement yesterday.
“These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment,” the agency said.
Lithium-ion cells are more flammable than other battery technology because they hold more energy, which can create sparks and high heat if not properly discharged. The chemicals inside the battery are also flammable and difficult to extinguish because they contain their own source of oxygen, Mike Sinnett,the 787 project engineer, said in a briefing last week.
Boeing chose lithium-ion batteries for the 787 because they hold more energy and can be quickly recharged, Sinnett said.
In a worst-case scenario in which the batteries do burn, they are designed to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten the aircraft, Sinnett said. If the jet is airborne, smoke is supposed to be vented out of the compartment so that it doesn’t reach the cabin, he said, and all of the battery cells can ignite without harming the plane’s ability to stay aloft.
Boeing got regulators’ permission to use lithium batteries in the jet in 2007, three years after U.S. passenger planes were barred from carrying non-rechargeable types as cargo because of their flammability.
The FAA’s action indicates that the agency is worried that special safety conditions it imposed in 2007 haven’t been met, McGraw, the retired FAA official, said.
“It probably means that the damage as a result of the meltdown was more than expected or got into an area that was not expected,” said McGraw, who now runs an aviation consulting firm in Stafford, Virginia. The FAA also may have been concerned that two fires occurred in such a short period, he said.
The groundings come as Boeing increases deliveries of the 787 to get out from under the weight of seven delays to the jet’s introduction. It’s set to double 787 output this year to help fill remaining orders for about 800. There are 50 Dreamliners in service worldwide, according to the FAA, and Boeing has reported deliveries to eight customers.
Boeing fell 0.5 percent to $73.95 at 1:07 p.m. in New York trading, on top of a 3.4 percent decline yesterday that was the biggest fall since June 1. It dropped as much as 3.7 percent to the equivalent of $71.52 in German trading.
The cost of insuring Boeing’s debt from non-payment for five years rose 1.4 basis points to 66.1 basis points as of 9:50 a.m. in New York, according to data provider CMA, which is owned by McGraw-Hill Cos. and compiles prices quoted by dealers in the privately negotiated market.
GS Yuasa fell 5 percent in Tokyo, the most since Oct. 23, and has dropped 9.2 percent over the past two days.
U.S. regulators announced Jan. 11 they were conducting a review of the Dreamliner’s design, manufacturing and assembly in the wake of the Japan Airlines fire. They portrayed the review as a process that could take several months, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA chief Michael Huerta endorsed the plane’s safety at a press conference.
“I believe this plane is safe and I would have absolutely no reservations of boarding one of these planes and taking a flight,” LaHood said.
Airbus SAS Chief Executive Officer Fabrice Bregier said the A350 wide-body jet employs “a lower-risk approach” than using lithium-ion batteries. Airbus’s A350 is due to enter service by the end of next year.
“We don’t see any reasons, at least until we get additional information, to change our design,” Bregier told reporters at Airbus’s base in Toulouse, France. Airbus’s parent company, European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co., rose as much as 4.6 percent today in Paris.
The Dreamliner conserves fuel by using five times more electricity than similar jets and by saving weight with a fuselage and wings made from composite materials, not aluminum.
Electricity on the Dreamliner powers the usual airliner fixtures, such as instruments and lighting, as well as touches that include dimmable windows in place of the traditional pull- down plastic shades. Boeing also opted to turn to electricity for functions such as de-icing the wings, instead of relying on hot, high-pressure air bled off from the engines.
The FAA didn’t ground models such as Boeing’s reliability- plagued 747 or Airbus’s A320 within two years of their introduction, according to accident and regulatory data. The 787 went into service in 2011.
Three months after European regulators in 1988 certified the A320, a single-aisle jet that has become the second-best selling model with 8,811 sold, pilots performing a demonstration at an air show in France flew into a stand of trees, killing three people, according to the AviationSafetyNetwork, a web- based library of aviation accidents.
The DC-10, a three-engine wide-body that began service in 1971, also suffered an early accident that sullied its image.
Shortly after takeoff from Detroit in 1972, a cargo door on an American Airlines Inc. DC-10 burst open and air rushing out of the jet buckled its floor. Pilots were able to land safely. Investigators ruled that it was caused by a design flaw in the door.
Two years later, the same problem occurred on a Turkish Airlines DC-10 after it departed from Paris. This time the internal damage was so severe it crashed, killing all 346 people aboard, according to the AviationSafetyNetwork. The airline hadn’t adopted the fix suggested by Douglas, French investigators found.
The FAA’s order to ground the Dreamliners came in the form of an emergency airworthiness directive. While a step short of revoking an airplane’s certificate to operate, it requires airlines or aircraft manufacturers to halt flights until they perform inspections or equipment changes, if the agency finds an “unsafe condition,” according to U.S. law.
“I’ll guarantee you there are lot of engineers who are not going to get a lot of sleep for the next few days,” Goglia said.
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