787 grounded, but Boeing to keep building
The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday grounded the Boeing 787 Dreamliner until its batteries are proven safe.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
The Federal Aviation Administration’s dramatic grounding of the 787 Dreamliner fleet — the first such order since it suspended DC-10 flights in 1979 after a series of major crashes — will inflict a significant financial hit on Boeing.
Though deliveries are likely to stop, the grounding will not immediately affect production and jobs in the company’s Everett and North Charleston, S.C., assembly plants.
“There are no plans to suspend 787 production,” said Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel.
Details of what investigators found inside the electronics bay of an All Nippon Airways jet after an emergency landing Wednesday in Japan suggest the event was significantly different from what happened a week earlier when a 787 battery fire broke out in Boston.
But the common thread is a faulty lithium-ion main battery. And the order triggered by the malfunctions raises questions about how long it will now take to prove something that was supposed to be already proved — the safety of the plane’s battery and power systems.
The FAA emergency directive applies directly only to U.S.-registered planes, the six operated by United Airlines.
But the two Japanese airlines that operate nearly half of the 50 787s now in service had already grounded their planes, and other regulators and airlines followed suit after the FAA order.
The agency’s directive says that “before further flight” Boeing must prove “that the batteries are safe.”
To do so, investigators will need to ascertain quickly whether the problem involves a simple manufacturing defect, or whether that technology is deficient and needs to be swapped for another battery type.
The emergency directive specifically “requires modification of the battery system, or other actions” before the 787 can fly again.
Weeks, not days
That is likely to take weeks, not days, analysts suggest.
Ken Herbert, senior vice president with San Francisco-based investment bank Imperial Capital, said stopping final assembly would back up the supplier pipeline and cause work stoppages all over the world at great cost to Boeing, which would have to compensate its supplier partners.
In addition, it would endanger the expected cash flow from the planned ramp-up to 10 jets per month by year end.
“Stopping the line and putting anything in the way of getting to 10 airplanes a month is the last thing they’d want to deal with,” Herbert said.
It makes sense for Boeing to pause deliveries but “keep the line going and build inventory,” he said.
If modifications eventually are required to all the airplanes already built, perhaps in swapping out the batteries or wiring, this clearly will be very expensive.
However, Herbert said, “the cost of shutting the line down and shutting the suppliers down is much greater than fixing those five airplanes that would roll out in a month.”
The FAA decided on the grounding after the second battery incident in eight days. After the ANA jet made its emergency landing, investigators inspected the forward electronics bay.
Hot chemicals had sprayed out of the battery, leaving a gooey dark residue and suggesting a different malfunction than the 787 battery fire at Logan airport in Boston last week, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.
The residue covered the battery and splattered over nearby instruments inside the bay. It left a 12-foot-long dark streak from the battery to an outflow valve through which some of the spray vented overboard during the flight.
The battery was not blackened and cracked open like the battery in the Japan Airlines 787 fire at the Boston airport, said those two people.
“It’s not as bad as the earlier incident,” one said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It looks like there wasn’t a fire. But there was a significant overheating.”
Two further sources confirmed there was no fire inside the airplane.
The residue may have been from smoke or from hot, vaporized electrolyte, the potentially flammable chemical inside the battery.
But even without a fire, “it’s still a problem” the electrolytes sprayed out of the battery box, said one person.
Four independent control circuits govern how the battery charges, ensuring that it neither overcharges nor discharges too much.
Boeing believes these circuits may have done their job as designed and stopped the overheating before a fire could start, two people said.
Boeing Senior Vice President Mike Sinnett, who is responsible for the plane’s electrical systems, said in an interview last week after the Logan fire that those controls — two inside the battery and two external — would prevent any serious battery incident.
He added that Boeing tests showed that any smoke from less serious battery overheating caused by some internal flaw would exit through the outflow valves overboard, ensuring none entered the passenger cabin or the cockpit in flight.
But the FAA, announcing its decision Wednesday to ground the 787 fleet, indicated that it was not satisfied these systems worked as designed.
“These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment,” the FAA said.
Both battery incidents resulted in the “release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage, and smoke,” it said.
ANA said Wednesday the pilots did smell something they thought was smoke, and that this smell was also in the passenger cabin.
That, along with warnings of battery trouble on the instrument panel, is what impelled the pilot to make the emergency landing, deploy the emergency exit slides and evacuate all 137 passengers and crew.
Two people with knowledge of what happened said the pilot received three battery-warning messages during takeoff after an initial status message.
One of those messages warned that the battery was overheating.
Investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the Japan Transport Safety Board are already working to establish the causes of the 787 battery malfunctions in Boston and Japan.
And the FAA said the safety review it announced last week will specifically look to “validate that 787 batteries and the battery system” meet the certification standards, which includes looking at quality control inside battery maker GS Yuasa of Japan and other system suppliers.
“The FAA will work with the manufacturer and carriers to develop a corrective action plan to allow the U.S. 787 fleet to resume operations as quickly and safely as possible.”
Aside from United and the two Japanese airlines, the only operators of the airplane at present are Air India, Qatar Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, LAN of Chile and LOT of Poland.
Boeing Chairman and CEO Jim McNerney issued a statement promising to work with the FAA.
“We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity,” he said. “We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the traveling public of the 787’s safety and to return the airplanes to service.”
Wednesday morning, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Ray Conner abruptly canceled most of a long-planned, daylong strategy meeting of his leadership executives and senior operational employees — some 900 people gathered at the Washington State Convention Center, including many top engineers.
Conner held just a short Q&A session with the employees, but the rest of the day’s agenda — including presentations to the crowd from out-of-town industry analysts and from Willie Walsh, chief executive of the holding company that owns British Airways and Spanish airline Iberia — was postponed until some unspecified later date.
Those who had flown in for the meeting left for home early as Conner gathered his team to confront the crisis in the 787 program.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org