Mary Schiavo says quick fix looks unlikely as regulators appear split on what caused battery defects in Dreamliner 787s
Boeing could face months of delays before its Dreamliner 787 can get back in service, according to the former head of the US Department of Transport.
Mary Schiavo, the former DoT inspector general, said it looked increasingly unlikely that a quick fix will be found to the battery issues that have led to the global grounding of Boeing’s hi-tech aircraft.
“It looks like an unfortunate situation for Boeing. It looks like there is not going to be a quick solution, and that we are not looking at days of grounding but possibly months,” she said.
“So far, at least, it appears not to have been a bad batch of batteries, which would have been the best of all possible worlds for Boeing,” she said.
Regulators investigating the battery fires in two Boeing 787 Dreamliners appear to be split on what caused the malfunctions that have led to the biggest airline grounding in 40 years.
The news is likely to complicate Boeing’s attempts to get regulators to re-approve the troubled aircraft for flight after a global grounding of the 787.
On Sunday, US regulators said the battery that caught fire on a JAL Dreamliner on the runway at Boston airport earlier this month “did not exceed its designed voltage of 32 volts”. On Tuesday, they will meet with officials at Securaplane Technologies, the manufacturer of the charger for the 787s lithium ion batteries, at the company’s headquarters in Tucson, Arizona.
The statement from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSFB) comes after Japanese investigators looking into a battery fire on another 787 indicated it may have overcharged. That flight was forced to make an emergency landing last week after a computer screen warned there was smoke inside one of the electrical compartments.
Schiavo said the fact that one plane was on the ground while the other was in flight suggested that the malfunctions may have been caused by different issues. “It is still possible that it is a manufacturing defect,” she said. “But with two of them happening that looks less and less likely.”
Different faults would require different solutions and would means that Boeing would need to track down two different problems and find two different solutions before seeking approval to fly the planes again from the Federal Aviation Authority.
The battery taken from the plane grounded at Boston’s Logan International airport was examined at the NTSB Materials Laboratory in Washington. Investigators have also examined several other components removed from the airplane, including wire bundles and battery management circuit boards.
Both batteries appeared charred in photographs. Japanese officials found that a flammable fluid known as electrolyte had leaked from the plane’s main lithium-ion battery beneath the cockpit. Japan transport-ministry investigator Hideyo Kosugi said the state of the battery indicated “voltage exceeding the design limit was applied”. Aviation experts have said that over-charging could have led to the fire.
GS Yuasa, the batteries’ manufacturer, is helping with the investigation but said last week that the cause of the problem was unclear. Lithium-ion batteries are notorious for overheating and have caused major issues for auto, computer and cell phone manufacturers. The Dreamliner is the first commercial airliner to use them so extensively.
Boeing has orders for 850 787s. The 50 in service have now been grounded and a moratorium on all new deliveries has been imposed.
John Goglia, a former NTSFB board member and professor of aviation science at Saint Louis University’s Parks College of Engineering, said it was unclear yet what had gone wrong with the battery. “Voltage is only part of the problem,” he said. Investigators will be trying to determine whether the issues occurred as the battery charged up or if problems occurred as it discharged, he said.
“With lithium-ion batteries everything evolves from a thermal event, they can not be overheated,” he said.
“If we don’t get identify the problem in a short period of time then this is really going to be a problem for Boeing,” said Goglia.
In 2011 the FAA ordered Cessna to pull all the lithium-ion batteries from its Citation CJ4 jets after a battery fire. They were replaced with conventional batteries.
Schiavo said: “They made the switch but they don’t need as much power as the 787 does. At this point it looks unfortunate for Boeing.”