Putting perspective on the 787

Update: The Wall Street Journal has a long article (subscription required) discussing the problem and the possibility the FAA could release the 787s for service if it approves interim steps designed by Boeing. It also has this illustration:


Original Post:

The grounding of the Boeing 787 by the US Federal Aviation Administration wasn’t entirely unexpected, based on discussions we had in the last 48 hours with people in the US and in Europe.

Although the FAA did not pull the Airworthiness Certificate of the airplane, the grounding had virtually the same effect.

Airlines throughout the world followed suit and some of the regulatory agencies followed the FAA lead.

We’ve been inundated with media calls asking about the ramifications. Here’s a synopsis of the questions and our responses.

Is this bad for Boeing?

On its face, this might seem like a somewhat silly question,  but understand that the FAA hasn’t grounded a commercial airliner since the 1979 crash of a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 that killed all on board and some on the ground. Most reporters weren’t around then and don’t have context.

Of course this is bad for Boeing. Fortunately, there has been no loss or life or even a hull loss, so the damage to Boeing and the 787 brands will be limited. But this is a black eye for both, no question about it.

How bad is it for Boeing?

This falls into that cliche, “it depends.” It depends on what the National Transportation Safety Board ultimately finds caused the JAL 787 fire and the ANA battery incident. Then it depends on what it takes to fix it. Will a simple battery redesign suffice? Was a defective design even at fault, or was there some system-defect, or human error, or something else? Why didn’t the safe guards prevent these things from happening?

Why did a brand-new airplane (the JA 787) have a fire and a year old airplane (ANA) have a different kind of battery issue, in a different electronics bay?

It’s way too soon to tell how bad this is for Boeing.

How long will it take to fix it?

You have to find out what’s wrong first, and then determine what it takes to fix it. The battery supplier says it could take months to analyze the failures, according to this Bloomberg article.  The fix might take several more months.

The in-flight fire on a 787 test flight delayed the program by six months.

Will airlines cancel orders?


How much will this cost Boeing?

Not that the company will ever tell the public, it all depends on how long the airplanes are grounded, what the problem is and how long it will take to fix the problem. The aircraft are under warranty, and expect more delivery delays. But the levels of compensation have too many variables right now to make any kind of a guess about the cost.

Is the plane safe?

Boeing says it is. The FAA said it is during the press conference announcing a full program review. But grounding an airplane says it isn’t. All the glitches aside from the fire are nuisance teething problems. The fire is a Big Deal and the battery incident may or may not be related to some systemic issue. With the grounding, the FAA is saying there is a safety issue until it is identified and fixed. The FAA statement is succinct:

“Before further flight, operators of U.S.-registered, Boeing 787 aircraft must demonstrate to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that the batteries are safe.

“The FAA will work with the manufacturer and carriers to develop a corrective action plan to allow the U.S. 787 fleet to resume operations as quickly and safely as possible.”

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney said this:

“We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity.  We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the traveling public of the 787’s safety and to return the airplanes to service.”

Until the root cause of the battery issues is determined and a fix identified, a safety issue hangs over the airplane, the program and Boeing.

32 Comments on “Putting perspective on the 787

  1. The safety of the airplane has to be the first priority. Boeing needs to do whatever it takes to fix the airplane, including designing and replacing the entire electrical system, if that’s what it takes. I don’t think it would be that radical, but at this point everything has to be on the table.

    • If Boeing has to redesign the entire electrical system that might as well be the nail in the coffin surely. That’s not going to take a few months and won’t come cheap either – and no doubt all deliveries will stop whilst this is happening – no point delivering planes that need an electrical system redesign.

      Hopefully it won’t come to this though.

      • A380 wiring issue prior to first delivery took quite a while, but didn’t bury anything.
        This will be solved in the same manner as teh wing-rib thing. And intermediate fix that’s a hassle (heavier batteries, more maintenance) with a real solution in the shape of an replace during a normal maintenance schedule.

        The solution usually isn’t the problem, making the solution light and robust is.

  2. The FAA statement implies the current grounding is localized to the batteries. But the parallel systems review by the same body suggests that issues may extend well beyond the batteries. If Boeing swaps in a different battery is it problem solved?

  3. As Scott says, not only the causes but also the apparent failure of safety systems will need to be addressed.

    After the fire I was satisfied that the containment system worked as intended, but since the second battery seems to have burst – from what was rumoured – then even containment needs some re-thinking. Battery electrolytes all over your high-power electric bay is not a good thing.

    By the way – wish I could get comment updates without having to post myself first.

    • ntsb, undamaged battery:
      The lid has no stiffness and is fixed with 4 small screws. The box appears flimsy imho.
      I like the blue colour 😉

      The difference was in the electrolyte burning or not.

      Looks like one or more cells burst in each case
      releasing gas and electrolyte spray under pressure
      deforming/lifting the lid and
      B escaping the containment unburning
      A starting to burn/decompose and emitting flames and
      smoke from under the lid.
      ( flames and smoke escaping through a narrow breach
      under pressure would explain 1..2feet long flames as reported )

  4. What I find incredible is that Boeing apparently advised LOT to go ahead with cross-ocean flights because what happened to the Japanese planes were KNOWN ISSUES… I expect that heads will roll at both ANA and JAL over this one, either because they knew, and made the wrong call, or because they did not know, but should have known. I don’t expect heads to roll at Boeing. There, in keeping with the 787 programme thus far, it’ll be promotions for the responsible and side-ways moves for the fall guys.

  5. I wonder if you could expand your thoughts on the cost to Boeing. Compensation was not my first concern. I was more interested in the cashflow issues associated with building the aircraft at the rate they are currently achieving (and the planned increases) and the inability to deliver them building up a larger backlog of jets scattered around Paine Field (and presumably Charleston). If this is not resolved swiftly, how will Boeing fund that level of work in progress?

  6. Out of 777 and 737 sales?

    Regarding the public impact, I discussed a business trip to Astana (TSE, Kazakhstan) last evening with a colleague who is not an aviation freak. When I told her that Air Astana was our best option, the first thing she asked (this was before the grounding) was ‘Do they fly this dreamliner?’ When I told her ‘no’, they would have an older Boeing, she was fine.

    • There is no doubt that the general public is affected by this. It’s in the news everywhere. But how long is it going to last? If there is one positive aspect for Boeing in the grounding of the 787 fleet, it is that there cannot be any more incidents, and all the bad publicity that comes with it, for the duration of the investigation.

      But when time comes to lift the band, the FAA will have to convince the general public that the danger has been eliminated. And if it is demonstrated that the danger is directly related to the inherent tendency of Lithium-ion batteries to overheat, they might have to order their removal from aircraft.

      The way I see the situation is that everyone knows that Lithium-ion batteries are unstable, but “because we have taken robust contingency measures, we are confident that the danger has been eliminated.” At least that’s what they said upon certification. Obviously it din’t work.

      • German news “leaning” on Reuters has funny articles like

        Dreamliner grounded.

        amusing. Or PR working to perfection.

  7. McNerney’s statement seems half-hearted:

    “… We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the traveling public of the 787′s safety and to return the airplanes to service.”

    I would prefer he said Boeing would take every necessary step to determine the causes and find robust solutions to the problems to make sure all risks are addressed properly,

    After 8 years of delays and surprises, I’m not sure how much we need more assurance. I’d rather see competent solutions.

  8. So, a battery bay is between the wings – where or very near to where the fuel is held! How bad would a fire need to be for this fuel to be ignited?

    • Afaiu there is the main gear wheel well in between.
      A fire that will reach the center tank is probably large
      enough for that “little” extra problem to make no difference.

  9. Airbus has Li-ion batteries on its A380s for the last 8 years with no problems or incidents of any kind.
    It is simply using a different design for the battery packs than Boeing and different electrical architecture and management system.
    Apparently it will use a similar arrangement on the A350.
    Boeing really should had look into the proven A380 battery system instead of designing its own version.

    • My understanding is that the Lithium-ion batteries on the A380 are only for emergency lighting, not for the APU, nor the aircraft main batteries.

  10. The problem they’re having (in my view), and it is a very worrying one (if I see it right), is that on one plane they had a fire where the containment worked, and on another they had a spill where the containment failed. They need to understand why the containment failed, and if there is a failure mode where they could have a fire and an unrelated containment failure at the same time. If that were the case, it would presumably be an unacceptable design aspect.

  11. Plane Mad :
    Airbus has Li-ion batteries on its A380s for the last 8 years with no problems or incidents of any kind.

    I think this is pretty irrelevant, since the Li-ion batteries on the A380 are not being heavily used.

    • It is relevant regarding the suggestions that Li-Ion is unstable (and thus unsafe) by definition.

      Of course it is also relevant that the batteries are used differently at the A380.

      • “It is relevant regarding the suggestions that Li-Ion is unstable (and thus unsafe) by definition.”

        That imho is a bit too far reaching. simplistic.
        “If we can’t get it working nobody else can”

        The mentioned SAFT cells have found wide application in comparable ( as on 787) use cases.
        My position at the moment is that batteries were the link that gave up spectacularly ( for one because this specific product has less benign failure modes than forex NiCd ) but the causal chain was triggered from other problems.

        Going back to the A.net posting: If a battery is dead after 6 month while elsewhere users expect (and get) 20 years lifetime from alternate products of comparable tech

        there is something massively wrong.

    • Yes, very useful image.

      I was very surprised to see Revelation on a.net say “Pretty much drives home the point that there was no fire in the ANA epsiode.”… since my reaction on seeing the picture was the exact opposite!

      To me it clearly shows both heat/flame induced blackening of the circuit board and looks similar to the JAL APU battery. So my first thought was: “Oh! Looks like the ANA flight had the same kind of runaway as the JAL flight after all… Not what I was expecting!”

      • If you overheat plastics they start to charr / coke ( compare to how wood or coal is gassified http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Town_gas ) you get a mix of gas ( hydrogen, chlorine, fluor, .. depending on the polymer ), partly broken up polymers and carbon.
        If you do this in a closed container the gas can be ignited on exit.

  12. I have said this before and will say it again;
    It is incomprehensible and irresponsible, for the battery manufacturer AND for
    Boeing, NOT to have made doubly sure that the all new-high-voltage, high-
    temperature Lithium batteries were NOT tested and tested again, before the
    787 went into service.
    This especially, because there had already been a battery fire during flight-test,
    before the a/p went int service!
    The battery manufacturer AND Boeing, therefore, had ample time to do so,
    during the three-year delay on the airframe!

    The consequences of the FAA GROUNDING the a/p by, the first since that
    was done on the DC-10 which had doors flying out in the “60s, could be a
    death blow to the 787 program, because I do not see the sole manufacturer
    of the battery, being able to come up with a new design on very short notice!
    But, grounding an a/p is one bad thing, getting it back in the air, is a far more
    difficult, time-consuming and costly process!

    • We don’t know the batteries were not tested by both the manufacturer and by Boeing. Also, that was not a battery fire on ZA-002 during flight testing. It was a power distrbution panel that caught fire.

      I do agree with you on the consequences of the FAA grounding the B-787, and the redesign of the batteries. Boeing may have to install Ni-Cad batteries in the interium until a new, safe, and dependable Li-Ion battery can be designed, tested, and manufacturered.

      There is at least one interesting paraelle between the DC-10 and the B-787, besides each being grounded by the FAA. The DC-10 was the first airplane fully designed after the McDonnell and Douglas merger in 1967. The B-787 was the first airplane fully designed after the Boeing and MD merger in 1997 (the MD-95/B-717 and B-777 were already in the design or early EIS process and the Sonic Cruiser, B-747-500/-600 were not developed).

      The DC-10 cargo door redesigned latching system is a modification of the (fail-safe) cam and roller latch locking system, with pressure plates, developed for the Boeing KC-135 cargo door in the 1950s. It was mandated after the AA-96 accident in 1972 and the TK-981 accident in 1974. The grounding came in 1979 after the AA-191 accident and maintenance practices caused complete failure of the hydraulic systems and partial failure of the electrical system after wiring harnesses were torn out when the engine departed the wing. About 150 DC-10s and another 60 KC-10s were delivered after the 1979 AA-191 accident.

  13. Rudy Hillinga :
    I have said this before and will say it again; It is incomprehensible and irresponsible, for the battery manufacturer AND for Boeing, NOT to have made doubly sure that the all new-high-voltage, high-temperature Lithium batteries were NOT tested and tested again, before the 787 went into service.

    I have said this before and will say it again; it is incomprehensible that the FAA has approved the utilization of Li-ion batteries onboard a commercial aircraft AND certify it for ETOP operations.

    I don’t know how thorough these batteries were tested, but it was all unnecessary. For those batteries have already been tested by the industry, including the US Navy which lost a Li-ion equipped mini submarine in 2010; and it was vastly demonstrated that the technology is not desirable for an airliner. Well, it is highly desirable from a technical point of view. But certainly not from a safety perspective.

    Can you imagine if avgas was substituted for kerosene in modern aircraft fuel tanks? That is basically what the FAA has done by allowing the substitution Li-ion batteries for the tried and true Ni-Cd batteries.

    And now the Li-ion got out of its cage and is roaring. So you better run! The Li-ion certainly can run, as it can spectacularly demonstrate in a thermal run away.

  14. Most commerical and military jet fuels are also called “wide cut gasoline”, but that term has lost favor since the late 1950s and early 1960s.

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