Battery malfunction grounds Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet

Posted on 17 Jan 2013 by Tim Brown

Aviation authorities in the US and Japan have ordered the grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner following a battery fault on an All Nippon Airways flight caused it to make an emergency landing in Japan yesterday.

The plane made the emergency landing after cockpit controls warned of a battery error and people on board reported an unusual smell.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered US operators to stop flying the Boeing Dreamliner until the batteries are proven to be safe and not pose a fire risk.

The regulator said it will work with Boeing and airlines “to develop a corrective plan to allow the US 787 fleet to resume operations as quickly and safely as possible”.

The incident is the second apparent fire in a battery on one of the aircraft, which came into service in September 2011.

Both the two recent incidents involved lithium-ion batteries. The 787 Dreamliner is the first aircraft to use such batteries and were chosen to meet the unusually heavy demands of the aircraft’s power systems, which are operated using hydraulics on traditional aircraft.

Lithium-ion batteries have been known to cause fires in cell phones, laptops, and electric vehicles. However, according to Technology Review, such problems are extremely rare, and “usually result from damage to the battery—such as piercing or overcharging—or problems with the manufacturing process that introduce flaws in the cells”.

While the FAA’s directive is applicable only to aircraft operated by United Airlines, the only US airline using the 787, the agency said it had recommended other global regulators follow suit.

“The battery failures resulted in the release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage, and smoke on two Model 787 aeroplanes,” an FAA spokesman said. “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.”

Jim McNerney, Boeing’s chief executive, said the company was confident the Dreamliner 787 was safe and it stood behind its “overall integrity”.

“The safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard Boeing aeroplanes is our highest priority. Boeing is committed to supporting the FAA and finding answers as quickly as possible.”

Shares in Boeing dropped more 3.4% to $74.34 (£46.51).

In a statement on the FAA review of the 787,  Boeing said the aircraft had “logged 50,000 hours of flight” and its performance was “on par with the industry’s best-ever introduction into service – the Boeing 777”. Like the 777, at 15 months of service, Boeing says the 787 fleet has achieved dispatch reliability well above 90%.

Impact on the UK and Europe

The European Aviation Safety Agency has now followed the US in ordering the grounding and safety review of 787 Dreamliner.

Currently no UK airlines are operating the 787 Dreamliner with Lot Polish Airlines the only European airline currently flying the aircraft.

Dreamliners currently in use:
• Air India: 6
• All Nippon Airways (Japan): 17
• Ethiopian Airlines: 4
• Japan Airlines: 7
• LAN Airlines (Chile): 3
• Lot Polish Airlines: 2
• Qatar Airways: 5
• United Airlines (US) 6
• Total: 50

LOT airlines’ Dreamliner left Warsaw’s Chopin airport on Tuesday evening on its inaugural commercial transatlantic flight to O’Hare international airport in Chicago.

One of the company’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner has now been grounded at an airport in Chicago, following the safety concerns.

Despite knowing about the run of incidents with the aircraft Poland’s LOT airline chose not to change its scheduled.

“We’ve decided to continue operations,” LOT spokesman Marek Klucinski told Polish television on Tuesday. “Today, the Dreamliner will go to Chicago.”

A spokesman for the UK Civil Aviation Authority said the it “would monitor the situation and work with UK airlines who are expecting to take delivery of the Boeing 787 aircraft to ensure safety”.