Analysis of 787 situation ahead of NTSB briefing

Note: The National Transportation Safety Board will brief the media today at 11am ET. We will have a live update on this blog.

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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.

20 comments on “Analysis of 787 situation ahead of NTSB briefing

  1. Scott, Compliments on taking a more balanced view here on the Airbus position.
    Much better than your previous posts.
    The key question is, what has Airbus got to gain from being more forthcoming and open. In my view, economically, not much. The “media feeding frenzy” may stop, but then again it may not.
    Giving more information will just raise more media questions.

    As you point out, there is a competition out there and Airbus will be very aware of that. In my view their stance sofar has been entirely rational, and actually quite polite, compared to some of the previous stupid stuff. Advertisements etc.

    • if it’s a safety concern, company politics should not be considered.
      Airbus may not have to volunteer their proprietary data, but if the FAA/EASA require them to share (not necessarily free of cost to Boeing or other beneficiaries), share they must.

  2. Yea but water only works AFTER flames die out- if too soon- water breaks down into steam, etc and mixed with chemicals can be a major problem. If I recall, Boston did find that Halon worked to supress flames- and eventually water works to cool down hot metal

  3. I believe we are all waiting on the NTSB briefing today. But, I also believe the main steam news media, who only looks for sensational headlines in every story will report it all wrong. But, fortunately, we have professional publications, like Leeham News to give an accurate and unbiased report on the NTSB briefing.
    I agree with you on Airbus’s candor on the A-380 rib feet issue, and their lack of candor on the A-350 batteries. I believe that Airbus’s “Plan B” is actually their “Plan A”, meaning they don’t yet have a Plan B to fall upon. Construction of the first A-350 has already begun and flight testing is already planned for later this year. No matter what comes out of the NTSB and JTSB investigations in the next few weeks, the first A-350, or so will have only the Plan A system in place for the Li-Ion batteries. I might remind everyone the A-350 will have 4 of these types of batteries, and to me that means the A-350 COULD BE twice as suseptable to a battery fire or thermal runaway as the B-787 is with just 2 batteries. I say this because we don’t know which batteries, and how many of each, power which systems, back-up electrical power, APU, etc.
    But, let’s wait for the NTSB briefing in about 30 minutes from now.

    • “I agree with you on Airbus’s candor on the A-380 rib feet issue, and their lack of candor on the A-350 batteries.”
      What should immediately concern you is that the 787 is currently the subject of the joint NTSB and the FAA investigation and remains grounded for the foreseeable future. What Airbus does or doesn’t should not even come into the picture. Keep the focus on where it should be – Boeing and the 787 batteries…

  4. kc135topboom :
    I might remind everyone the A-350 will have 4 of these types of batteries, and to me that means the A-350 COULD BE twice as suseptable to a battery fire or thermal runaway as the B-787 is with just 2 batteries.

    It’s actually the opposite. The more units there are, the less susceptible the overall system will be to thermal runaways. A smaller unit is more efficient to shed excess heat because it has proportionally more radiating area than a larger unit. That is the main reason behind Airbus’s decision to go with an architecture comprising four small batteries.

    • That assumes the individual batteries on the A350 will be smaller (or in some other way have a smaller failure rate due to there being more of them – better load balancing/ less use per battery?).

      However, remember those stories about laptops and mobiles catching fire and melting?
      Remember how all those stories are now old news – like the problem in those devices is solved?
      I guess the Li battery tech is finicky and difficult to engineer, but not impossible. Thus, as we see several generations of aircraft sized batteries rolled out and installed, their failure rate should go down. This will also benefit in production a/c since battery replacement is not a huge deal, like replacing structural wing ribs or having to reinforce the wing-body join.

  5. Somewhat off-topic; EASA has awarded type certification for the Rolls-Royce Trent XWB:

    http://easa.europa.eu/certification/type-certificates/docs/engines/EASA-TCDS-E.111_Rolls–Royce_plc_Trent_XWB_Series_engines-01-07022013.pdf

    …..And the engine (dry) weight is : 7277 kg (i.e. not including nacelle etc.)

    The engine dry weight for the Trent-900 is 6436 kg.

    Corresponding dry weight figures for the

    -Trent-500 is 4990 kg
    -Trent-700 is 4763
    -Trent-800 is 6078 kg
    -Trent-1000 is 5409 kg

  6. “It’s clear Airbus is highly sensitive to questions linking the A350 to the 787.”

    Yes they are, and for good reasons. They understand, like the rest of us, that Boeing’s image is tarnished. They know, like the rest of us, that people are afraid to fly on the 787 or any other aircraft that would use Li-ion batteries.

    They are afraid that anything bad about the Dreamliner would reflect on the A350, because they are more or less “parallel” programmes. Imagine that we would discover major flaws with the 787 composite structure. There would be immediate repercussions on the A350, even though they each use a substantially different technology.

    And besides, no one denies the fact that Airbus would love to have the A350 in the air before the Paris Air Show. But if the FAA decided to impose additional and unforeseen constraints, or to ban the Li-ion technology altogether, it would obviously bring additional delays to the programme.

    The tension is palpable at Airbus. It is also understandable. But obviously it’s nothing compared to the chaos that Boeing has to go through right now.

    • Normand Hamel :

      kc135topboom :
      I might remind everyone the A-350 will have 4 of these types of batteries, and to me that means the A-350 COULD BE twice as suseptable to a battery fire or thermal runaway as the B-787 is with just 2 batteries.

      It’s actually the opposite. The more units there are, the less susceptible the overall system will be to thermal runaways. A smaller unit is more efficient to shed excess heat because it has proportionally more radiating area than a larger unit. That is the main reason behind Airbus’s decision to go with an architecture comprising four small batteries.

      I’m not sure that is correct. The NTSB has not identified a connection between the electrical load placed on the battery, or the rate of recharge and the battery itself.

      How much smaller is the Li-Ion battery in the A-350 compared to the battery n the B-787? Does the A-350 battery provide the same high voltage, 32 volts?

  7. It is interesting to read the comments here regarding the 787 and 350 programs. To the outsider (me), it looks like the 787 has a battery problem (duh). It will get fixed presumably in a safe manner. The 350 and 380 and Cessna all have somewhat similar battery technology. It is likely they will have to implement a similar fix to the 787 to meet the regulators approval. To me, it’s like being a little bit pregnant…its a Lithium battery or it isn’t. The liklihood of a thermal event occurring is low, but it is never going to be zero. Now that B (and Cessna) has had a problem, it is likely everyone is going to have to toe the line.

    I think Scott is doing a great job of being objective and of perhaps even guiding Airbus to the best approach: be candid, sympathetic, but be honest about the situation. There is nothing to be gained by letting the tabloid (I mean mainstream) media run around with little dribs and drabs of data building a mountain out of a molehill in order to create fear and media interest… AIrbus has time to react once the regulatory requirements are made. They might say something like:

    We here at AIrbus are confident in our designs but recognize that new technologies are being utilized in both our airplanes and our competitors. We make safety our first priority and are following the investigation with interest so as to determine the best way to ensure the safety of our airplanes and our flying public. Once the regulatory decisions are made we will of course meet and exceed those standards wherever possible. Go AIrbus… rah

  8. “we believe outsourcing in this case to be an unfair complaint.” I don’t agree. Boeing decided to go and push a new technology hard for whatever reason (weight, ability to discharge/recharge more quickly, whatever). The responsibility rests with them for this decision.

    • I think what Scott meant is that we cannot blame Boeing for outsourcing something like the battery system, as opposed to say the wings. The wings is a Boeing specialty and the electrical system is not.

      Where I agree with you is that Boeing should assume final responsibility and not blame the supplier, the contractor or any sub-contractor. Boeing is the integrator and is ultimately responsible for the validation and certification of any part of the aircraft.

  9. Not that I agree with RA on his basic premises, late latest letter of his is nevertheless an interesting read.

    http://www.richardaboulafia.com/shownote.asp?id=373

    I don’t like change. But every so often, I’m forced to re-examine my long-held beliefs. This is one of those moments.

    During my 25 years as an aerospace industry analyst, Boeing looked more competitive than Airbus. My job is to forecast and provide recommendations to industrial and financial clients, and Boeing almost always delivered better results. When random Euro-sycophants accused me of being “anti-Airbus,” (as if it were a cultural/national bias) I merely offered to discuss numbers (i.e., financial returns and benefits to industrial partners). They’d get that confused deer-in-headlights look (which confirmed that many people in this business don’t quite understand market economics), and sadly mope away.

    • Aboulafia is a joker. If Airbus didn’t have compelling products to offer, its market share would certainly not be where it is now. Equalling competitiveness to sheer financial metrics is nonsensical.

  10. Leeham, I fail to understand your point on Airbus, may be you should edit your title. As far as I know there are no link between the B787 ‘incidents’ and the A350 (which as the 787 is grounded, although for different reasons ;))

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