Boeing 787 Design Should Prevent Battery Fires: Hersman

Battery incidents that prompted the grounding of Boeing Co.’s Dreamliner are “unprecedented” safety breaches that should have been prevented by the aircraft’s design, the U.S. investigation’s leader said.

“The significance of these events cannot be understated,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said yesterday at a briefing in Washington. “We do not expect to see fire events on board aircraft. This is a very serious air-safety concern.”

Investigators found evidence of short circuits and uncontrollable overheating in a battery that caught fire on a Japan Airlines Co. 787 in Boston on Jan. 7. Investigators don’t yet know whether those were causes of the blaze or the result, Hersman said.

The NTSB investigation is central to understanding how to fix the lithium-ion battery packs and get the Dreamliner airborne again after its Jan. 16 grounding worldwide. Hersman wouldn’t say how long the safety board’s “methodical” effort would take, suggesting that the grounding wouldn’t end soon.

“We have not yet ruled anything out,” she said.

The search for answers has dimmed hopes of a rapid fix and return to flight for the 787, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based forecaster.

‘All Hands’

“Psychologically, it’s a blow,” Aboulafia said. “There was the hope of a speedy fix and fast progress. It looks like there is a lot of work ahead of them.”

Boeing rose $1.03 yesterday, or 1.4 percent, to $75.32, its highest closing price since Jan. 15, the day before the grounding.

To be able to use lithium-ion batteries, which hadn’t been used to that extent on prior commercial airplanes, Boeing was required to meet conditions for the Dreamliner set by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in 2007. They required a design that would prevent significant damage outside the packs in the event of a fire.

The fire in Boston charred other components and the jet’s structure, Hersman said. The battery spewed molten material and flammable liquid, she said.

“We have all hands on deck,” she said. “We are working as hard as we can to identify what the failure mode is here and what corrective actions need to be taken.”

The U.S. agency is leading the investigation of the Boston fire, while Japan’s safety board is in charge of a probe of smoke and fumes from a battery in an All Nippon Airways Co. Dreamliner on Jan. 16.

Grounding Order

That plane’s crew noticed smoke and fumes while climbing at about 30,000 feet, Hersman said. The pilots then made an emergency landing.

The FAA issued its order after the ANA incident, the first time the U.S. has grounded an entire aircraft model since 1979.

Aviation regulators in other countries where airlines operate the 787 followed the FAA’s lead, grounding all of the 50 Dreamliners in service. The jet won’t fly again until the FAA has a better idea what happened and how to fix it, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Jan. 23.

Boeing “welcomes the progress being made in the 787 investigation” and is working “tirelessly” to return the Dreamliner to service, according to an e-mailed statement after the NTSB briefing.

Parallel Probes

U.S. aviation officials, who pronounced the Dreamliner safe in a press conference Jan. 11, ordered the grounding because the ANA incident occurred while the plane was in the air, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Jan. 23. The Japan Airlines fire was discovered after the flight’s 183 passengers and 11 crew members had left the plane.

The FAA is conducting a parallel investigation and reviewing how the 787 was certified and manufactured.

The NTSB this week sent investigators to Boeing’s Seattle facilities and to Securaplane Technologies Inc.’s Tucson, Arizona, plant, where they tested elements of the battery charger and attempted to download data, Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for the safety board, said in an e-mail. Securaplane is a division of Christchurch, England-based Meggitt Plc.

Transportation regulators in France and Japan also are investigating the incidents. Boeing’s battery supplier, GS Yuasa Corp, is based in Kyoto and Thales SA, based in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, France, makes the electrical power conversion system that includes the batteries.

Thermal Runaway

Probe of GS Yuasa will continue for now, Shigeru Takano, a director for air transportation in the ministry’s Civil Aviation Bureau, told reporters in Tokyo today. The investigation will continue “for the time being,” he said.

Japan may invite external exports for the battery check, said Masahiro Kudo, an aircraft accident investigator for the Japanese ministry’s transport safety board. Japan’s government is considering sending more inspectors for the battery check.

The safety board will examine how the FAA and Boeing certified the jet’s lithium batteries, Hersman said.

“Were those certification standards adhered to and were they appropriate?” she said. “These events should not happen. As far as design of the aircraft, there are multiple systems to protect against a battery event like this. Those systems did not work as intended. We need to understand why.”

Clues teased from the battery haven’t shown why it caught fire, Hersman said. She displayed a photo showing a melted metal connection, indicating it had short circuited.

Finding Fix

The battery cells also entered a condition known as thermal runaway, she said.

Thermal runaway occurs when the heat generated within a battery builds up faster than it can dissipate, Dan Doughty, retired manager of battery research and development at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said in an interview.

“When a cell goes into thermal runaway, you’ve lost control,” he said.

It can lead to a fire or explosion in extreme cases, Doughty said.

The safety board’s press conference was “politically motivated and premature as there was little to report,” Stephen Levenson, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in New York, said in a note. The probe into causes of the battery incidents should conclude “in the short term,” he wrote.

Jeff Smisek, United Continental Holdings Inc.’s chief executive officer, expressed confidence yesterday in the Dreamliner. United, with six 787s, was the only U.S. airline using the plane before the FAA action.

“The aircraft is a terrific aircraft and customers love the plane,” Smisek said on a conference call with analysts. “We too want to get the airplane up and flying safely. I’m confident that will occur, but I don’t know when it will occur. They will find a fix.”

Carol Carmody, former vice chairman of the NTSB, said Hersman’s tone was warranted under the circumstances.

“The potential for fire on an aircraft, especially for one that is flying overseas, is very, very serious,” Carmody said. “And the fact that there have been two instances is of concern.”

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