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Batteries Scrutinized as Likely Culprit in Boeing 787 Mishaps

Batteries Scrutinized as Likely Culprit in Boeing 787 Mishaps

It’s been a tumultuous two weeks for Boeing’s flagship 787 Dreamliner, culminating with Wednesday’s Airworthiness Directive (AD) from the FAA which ordered the only current U.S. user of the troubled plane, United, to cease operating them until further notice. Other countries quickly followed the U.S.’s lead, and no 787s are currently in the air.

The FAA explained the concerns underlying the AD, and the focus of its investigation, as follows:

The in-flight Japanese battery incident followed an earlier 787 battery incident that occurred on the ground in Boston on January 7, 2013. The AD is prompted by this second incident involving a lithium ion battery. The battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage, and smoke on two Model 787 airplanes. The root cause of these failures is currently under investigation. These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment.

Lithium-ion batteries are lighter than other battery types, more powerful, and faster to recharge. But they have also proven to be more flammable than their conventional counterparts, at least under certain conditions.

The batteries used on Boeing’s 787 are manufactured by a Japanese company, GS Yuasa Corp.

A Reuters report states that safety officials from the U.S. and Japan on Friday were examining the damaged battery from the ANA 787 that was forced to make an emergency landing in Japan earlier this week.

Commercial airliners utilize tremendously complicated electro-mechanical systems and subsystems. The narrow focus on a single component is a hopeful sign.

Dreamliner Issues

The ever-growing list of 787-related incidents and responses now includes the following:

  • On Wednesday, Qatar Airways cancelled a scheduled flight from London to Doha.
  • Also on Wednesday, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines suspended all 787 flights, partly in response to a battery malfunction that resulted in an emergency landing.
  • On Sunday, a fuel leak was discovered on a Japan Airlines 787 at Tokyo’s Narita Airport.
  • A fire broke out on a Japan Airlines 787 in Boston earlier this month.
  • A fire similar to the one in Boston had been reported during the 787’s testing phase in 2010.
  • In December, an electrical malfunction forced a United Airlines 787 to make an emergency landing.
  • Later that same month, United reported that the same issue had been discovered on a second Dreamliner.
  • Also in December, Qatar Airlines grounded one of its 787s because of electrical issues.
  • The FAA has ordered inspections of potential fuel-line leaks on all 787s.
  • Last week, the FAA announced that it would subject the 787 Dreamliner to an unusual post-launch “review.”

About the 787 Dreamliner

The Dreamliner is Boeing’s most advanced airliner, featuring such cutting-edge technology as lithium-ion batteries and a composite-plastic body.

The first 787 was received by ANA in September 2011, and since then about 35 787s have been delivered to eight airline customers, including United.

As of last month, the company had taken orders for 844 Dreamliners, and Boeing hopes to sell as many as 5,000 during the lifetime of the plane.

Reader Reality Check

Are the 787’s problems of concern to you? Would you fly on one anyway?

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