Note: The National Transportation Safety Board will brief the media today at 11am ET. We will have a live update on this blog.
The flurry of news late yesterday for the Boeing 787, its grounding, a ferry flight, potential interim actions and fixes to get the airplane back in the air, and comments from the NTSB chairperson all combine to suggest to us–and to others–that Boeing indeed is making good progress.
Although Deborah Hersman, chair of the federal investigatory agency, said it will be weeks before definitive answers are forthcoming about the cause of the Japan Air Lines battery fire and the ANA battery thermal runaway, this was immediately seen as a positive development. “Weeks” instead of “months” is the key take-away from this.
Hersman went on to say that she would not “categorically” call the lithium ion battery “unsafe,” but that risks posed by the technology had to be properly “mitigated.” This is a very important statement.
At the first press briefing, Hersman said–not unnaturally–that fires on airplanes are unacceptable. As we reported earlier this week, Airbus, in a safety seminar, noted that fires can become uncontrollable within eight minutes and an emergency landing should be undertaken within 15 minutes. There are plenty of examples where planes have been brought down by fires, even over land where airports are plentiful.
But airplanes, like trains, autos and boats/ships, simply have risks that can’t be completely avoided, only mitigated. The statement by the FAA/DOT that officials needed to be convinced the 787 was “1,000” safe was a silly characterization.
Much has been made of the outsourcing in the 787 business model as being responsible for the battery issues. There is much to criticize about Boeing’s outsourcing on the 787, but we don’t view this as one of them. Boeing doesn’t build batteries and it doesn’t build the charging and electrical systems associated with them. These are contracted to vendors–outsourced, if you will–and always have been and always will be. Boeing has to rely on vendors to “get it right,” and although in the end it’s Boeing’s name on the airplane and Boeing’s name on the certification, we believe outsourcing in this case to be an unfair complaint.
The FAA announced it would undertake a full program certification review of the 787 after the JAL incident but before the ANA emergency landing and grounding. We pointed out that the FAA would in effect be reviewing its own work, along with Boeing, on which the FAA relied for expertise in the first place. We pointed out that there is an inherent conflict of interest and that the relationship between the FAA and industry historically has this conflict of interest. (Mainstream media “discovered” this fact later.) The NTSB’s investigation early on said it would be looking into testing procedures, and yesterday ABC network news thought this to be a revelation. This reporting added to the frenzy of news yesterday that somewhat baffled us.
The NTSB is a much better check-and-balance on the FAA-Boeing 787 testing than is the FAA-Boeing reviewing its own work.
We think it clear that flaws in the battery testing and the process will be revealed. But we hesitate to make too much out of this. Aviation is replete with examples where testing has fallen short. State-of-the-art analysis at the time may later prove to be inadequate. For a recent example, we only need to look at the Airbus testing of a new, light-weight metal alloy used in the A380 wing rib braces. Analysis Airbus thought to be state-of-the-art at the time proved to be inadequate, and cracks were discovered years later in these braces. No safety-of-flight issues were involved, but the high-profile news was embarrassing to Airbus and costly to repair. To Airbus’ credit, officials were forthcoming about the cracks, the inadequacy of the testing and their own embarrassment.
We wish we could say the same about their level of candor with respect to batteries today.
Airbus took the high road at its annual press conference, held hours after authorities grounded the 787. Officials expressed sympathy for Boeing’s plight and expressed confidence Boeing would quickly resolve issues. There was no gloating.
They also explained factually and without any sense of superiority that the A350 is designed to use four lithium ion batteries instead of two; the A350 uses conventional technology rather than being an all-electric airplane, thus drawing one-third the power of the 787 (but less than the A330); and the batteries are vented and of a design that meets current standards rather than not being vented and subject to special conditions, as with the 787.
But Airbus refuses to address whether there is any fire suppression or containment design associated with the batteries. The candor associated with the A380 wing rib cracks is absent here, and this only feeds the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle to hound Airbus and to try and get information where we, the media and analysts, can.
We found a link to a March 2012 Airbus presentation analyzing lithium ion battery issues on, of all places, Airliners.net. We posed questions to Airbus and drafted our story. While we were waiting for answers, unbeknownst to us, Reuters had found the same presentation and was working on its own piece. Reuters beat us to the punch in publishing, and Airbus refused to answer questions from either Reuters or us about the presentation or fire suppression features (if any) surrounding the A350 battery system.
Based on the Airbus presentation, however, and some other information we picked up on our own, we believe–but have not confirmed–that Airbus may have a halon suppression system that is effective for single-cell incidents but which is ineffective for thermal runaway. As Boeing pointed out after the JAL fire, only water can put out a thermal runaway fire (it took Boston fire fighters between 40-99 minutes, depending on which report you read, to put out the JAL fire). This is why, Boeing said, there is no fire suppression system for the 787’s batteries. The Airbus presentation made the same point but is silent on the A350’s design.
This is why Cessna has designed a containment box for its lithium ion battery and apparently is now the direction Boeing is headed for the 787. Airbus is silent about the A350.
Airbus says it has a Plan B for its battery system, should regulators want one, and it’s at a point in the A350 program where changes can easily be made. But what’s Plan A? Airbus won’t say.
From our conversations with reporters, it’s clear Airbus is highly sensitive to questions linking the A350 to the 787, and somewhat baffled, too. We’re baffled Airbus is baffled. Using similar new technology has always been a point of comparison and linkage. Composite 787. Composite A350. Electric 787. Non-electric A350. Fuel efficiency vs fuel efficiency. Why should this be any different? The questions are as natural as breathing. Airbus displayed admirable candor with the A380 issues. Falling short on the candor relative to the A350’s Plan A design only feeds the media frenzy.
Having said that, let’s get back to the 787 in advance of today’s NTSB briefing. We are encouraged by what we saw yesterday and what we have been hearing since last week. As we reported Monday, the FAA seems to be looking at a grounding of between 30-120 days. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday Boeing hopes to get the 787 back in the air in March.
We think this may well be possible.