Boeing Batteries Said to Fail 10 Times Before Incident

All Nippon Airways Co. said it changed lithium-ion batteries or chargers on its Boeing Co. 787 planes 10 times before a Jan. 16 emergency landing that led to the Dreamliner’s worldwide grounding.

The disclosure came as the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board broadens its probe of the batteries beyond the ANA incident and a fire on a Japan Airlines Co. 787 nine days earlier in Boston. The safety board knew some airlines replaced batteries on the 787 and has worked with Boeing to get a complete list of maintenance actions, Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman, said in an interview.

The previous battery failures didn’t cause cancellations or delays, and therefore weren’t reported to Japan’s Transport Ministry, Megumi Tezuka, an All Nippon spokeswoman, said in an interview today. More than 100 units failed and were returned to the manufacturer before the two incidents with the Japanese airlines, the Seattle Times reported today, citing an unidentified person inside the 787 program.

“It is far too early to say whether any of these prior battery problems have any impact on our investigation,” Nantel said.

The widening of the NTSB’s inquiry shows the 787’s grounding won’t end any time soon. Flights on Chicago-based Boeing’s most advanced jet were stopped by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other aviation authorities Jan. 16, in the first such U.S. action involving an entire aircraft type since 1979, after a battery smoldered and emitted fumes on an ANA domestic flight in Japan.

Battery Replacements

Neither Boeing nor ANA notified the FAA about the battery replacements made before the Jan. 7 Boston fire, the FAA said today in an e-mailed statement.

If batteries were replaced for reasons that didn’t include a fire, a release of toxic fumes or a similar significant failure, Boeing wouldn’t be required to inform the U.S. aviation regulator, according to FAA regulations. The reporting regulations apply to U.S. carriers, not foreign airlines, so ANA wouldn’t have had to report to FAA.

Boeing isn’t aware of any 787 batteries being replaced because of safety concerns, Marc Birtel, a spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement today. The batteries were made by GS Yuasa Corp., based in Kyoto.

“The batteries are being returned because our robust protection scheme ensures that no battery that has been deeply discharged or improperly disconnected can be used,” he said.

Shelf Life

Some batteries had exceeded their shelf life, he said. “This is a fact of life in dealing with batteries; they sometimes expire and must be returned,” he said.

The batteries on the 787 have been replaced at a “slightly higher” rate than Boeing anticipated, Chief Executive Officer Jim McNerney said today during a conference call on earnings.

Progress is being made on understanding the root causes of the battery incidents and the company remains optimistic that the plane will be a success, McNerney said. He declined to speculate when the Dreamliner would return to flight.

“We’re making progress in the investigation,” he said. “We’ve got every expert in the world looking at this issue.”

Tokyo-based ANA was the first customer for the 787, which uses new technology such as carbon-fiber materials to save weight and improve efficiency. The plane was the first to use large lithium-ion batteries for backup power and to start the auxiliary power unit, a turbine engine that drives a generator mainly for power on the ground.

Battery Issues

Japan Airlines also had battery issues before the Boston incident, Sze Hunn Yap, a company spokeswoman, said today. The previous incidents weren’t serious and they didn’t cause any cancellation of flights or delays, she said.

Air India Ltd. had no battery problems with its 787s, Chairman Rohit Nandan said in a text message.

LOT Polish Airlines SA, the only European carrier to fly the aircraft so far, hasn’t encountered any issues with batteries on its 787s, a spokesman said in a telephone interview. While there were some technical issues on the aircraft, they were “teething issues,” he said. LOT has one Dreamliner stranded in Warsaw and one in Chicago.

Mary Ryan, a spokeswoman for United Continental Holdings Inc., the only U.S. airline operating the Dreamliner, declined to say whether the company had replaced batteries.

Boeing today said net income for 2013 will be $5 to $5.20 a share. That compares with an average estimate of $5.16 in a Bloomberg survey of 25 analysts. Boeing said its forecast assumed no significant impact from the Dreamliner’s grounding and shipments of more than 60 of the planes this year.

Certification Review

Under the FAA’s order, the Dreamliner won’t fly until Boeing and airlines can show the batteries are safe. The agency is also reviewing the plane’s certification and manufacture, including its own 2007 decision allowing Boeing to use lithium batteries in the plane’s design.

The NTSB, which is assisting Japan’s investigation into the ANA incident, hasn’t been able to identify what caused the failures.

Investigators are still attempting to determine whether a common manufacturing error could have led to the failures even though the batteries on the ANA and Japan Air planes were made 10 months apart, according to two people familiar with the investigation. They asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak about the probe.

The safety board hasn’t ruled out potential causes ranging from damage during operations to a circuitry failure, the people said.

Microscopic Evidence

U.S. investigators are putting evidence under microscopes as they also look globally for patterns of flaws with the plane’s lithium batteries, the agency said in an e-mailed update yesterday.

The battery that burned on the ANA plane was a replacement unit made in November 2011 and installed in October 2012 after an unspecified failure, according to Japan’s Transport Ministry and ANA.

The unit on the JAL plane was made in September 2012, according to the NTSB and Japan’s Transport Ministry.

Teams of NTSB specialists are examining with microscopes the battery that failed, and performing chemical analysis in the areas where they found internal short circuiting and thermal damage, according to its release.

The safety board is also scanning data contained on the JAL plane’s two flight-data recorders.

Japan’s transport ministry completed the inspections at a battery-box monitor maker based in Fujisawa yesterday, said Shigeru Takano, a director for air transportation at the ministry’s Civil Aviation Bureau. They didn’t find any problems “directly linked” to the battery fire, Takano said.

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