U.S. officials and Boeing Co. (BA) are investigating whether defective batteries from the same batch caused failures in two 787 Dreamliners that triggered the plane’s worldwide grounding, according to two people familiar with the incidents.
If proven true, flaws may be confined to a small number of 787s, rather than indicating a systemic fault with the plane’s design or manufacturing, and could speed 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.
Boeing rose 1.2 percent to $75.26 at 4 p.m. yesterday in New York trading, after a 3.4 percent decline on Jan. 16 that was the biggest fall since June 1.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which certified the plane in 2011, on Jan. 16 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. (9202) and a fire on a Japan Airlines Co. jet. The two Japanese airlines on Jan. 16 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.
The batteries were made by Kyoto, Japan-based GS Yuasa Corp. (6674), which has said the Dreamliner’s faults may go beyond the batteries. GS Yuasa rose as much as 3.9 percent in Tokyo today after a three-day 9.5 percent decline.
GS Yuasa also provides batteries to carmakers such as Honda Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. Honda and GS Yuasa have a joint venture for manufacturing, sales and research of lithium-ion batteries for hybrid vehicles. Honda isn’t in a position to comment, according to an e-mail from the maker of Civic cars.
Mitsubishi didn’t respond to requests for comments.
Dreamliner production continues, though Boeing said it’s working with the FAA on a “go-forward plan” for deliveries and production test flights. Marc Birtel, a spokesman at the company’s commercial headquarters in Seattle, declined to comment further on delivery schedules or the investigation.
The planemaker’s engineers may be going on strike in the coming weeks with the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace yesterday urging members to reject the company’s best-and-final contract offer in vote that will be set in the coming weeks.
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 (HO), manufacturer of the Dreamliner’s electrical-power conversion system, which includes the batteries.
Giaime Porcu, a spokesman for the company’s civil aerospace division, declined to comment. Thales is based in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, France.
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.
“Anything that involves the potential for fire on board an aircraft you’ve got to get to the bottom of and figure out what the corrective action is, and they will,” said former FAA head Marion Blakey, now president of the Arlington, Virginia-based Aerospace Industries Association, at the Bloomberg Global Markets Summit in New York.
“It makes all the sense in the world to address something early, figure it out and go forward,” she said. “I think all of the customers are going to be pleased that happened, even though it’s inconvenient.”
The U.S. order, while only affecting six planes flown by United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL), led to a worldwide grounding of the 787 as airlines and aviation regulators in other countries followed the FAA’s lead.
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.
In addition to assisting Japan’s investigation of the ANA incident, the U.S. safety board is 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 the fire, 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 Jan. 16.
“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.
Boeing and FAA officials are scheduled to visit Japan’s Takamatsu airport today to investigate the All Nippon plane that made the emergency landing, said Shigeru Takano, a group manager of the safety department in Japan’s Transport Ministry.
All Nippon said today it will cancel flights with the 787 until Jan. 22, affecting some 4,000 passengers on Jan. 19 and some 3,100 passengers the day after.
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 when ignited are 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 plane 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 jet’s ability to stay aloft.
Boeing got regulators’ permission to use lithium batteries in the jetliner in 2007, three years after U.S. passenger planes were barred from carrying non-rechargeable types as cargo because of their flammability.
The Dreamliner conserves fuel by using five times more electricity than similar planes and by saving weight with a fuselage and wings made from composite materials, not aluminum.
Electricity on the Dreamliner powers the usual needs, such as instruments and air conditioning, as well as new touches that include dimmable windows in place of traditional pull-down plastic shades. Boeing also opted to turn to electricity for functions such as de-icing the wings. The electrical content is unique to the 787, shunning traditional power systems that rely on hot, high-pressure air bled off the engines.
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 (9201) 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.
U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who leads a committee that oversees transportation, said he’s satisfied with regulators’ actions so far.
“Safety is, and should be, the highest priority for the aviation system,” Rockefeller said in an e-mailed statement. “Recent incidents involving the plane’s power systems raise serious concerns, and Administrator Huerta’s decision to require additional inspections is prudent under the circumstances.”