Hours after Japanese carriers voluntarily removed their 787s from service, the FAA has stepped in and ordered the grounding of all U.S. 787s as well. What does this mean for the future of Boeing’s showcase jetliner?
UPDATE: February 20, 2013
Everybody ought to read James Surowieki’s provocative article in the February 4th issue of the New Yorker. Among his excellent points is one that I neglected to make myself — that the reason we shouldn’t necessarily compare the 787’s troubles to those of predecessors like the Comet or the DC-10, is that the safety standards of those eras no longer apply. We live in a different age now, with higher standards and higher expectations or safety and reliability. You can view the article here.
UPDATE: January 23, 2013
On Wednesday, January 16th, All Nippon Airways flight 692, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner bound from the western Japan city of Yamaguchi to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, with 137 people aboard, diverted to Takamatsu after smoke was reported in the cockpit. Five people were injured in the ensuring evacuation on an airport taxiway. According to Japanese news reports, the smoke was caused by a battery fire in the plane’s forward electronics bay.
This was the latest in a series of battery-related smoke and fire incidents to strike Boeing’s beleaguered 787 — a plane that has been in service for only a little more than a year. In response, Japanese carriers All Nippon and Japan Airlines voluntarily removed their 787s from service. Hours later, the FAA ordered all U.S.-registered 787s grounded as well. They are yet to return to service.
Early-on glitches are not unusual when an aircraft is introduced. All new models have their teething problems. Most are minor, if expensive nuisances (engine problems that plagued the first 747s, for example). Others are more serious. In 2010, an uncontained engine failure involving a Qantas A380 raised important questions about some the plane’s systems redundancies. The poorly designed cargo door locking mechanism on the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 contributed to one of the worst aviation disasters in history — the horrific crash of a THY Turkish Airlines flight outside Paris in 1974. And years earlier, the world’s first commercial jet, the de Havilland Comet, was grounded after stress fractures caused three catastrophic inflight breakups.
The 787 had not yet joined the likes of the Comet or the DC-10, but things were clearly trending in a bad direction.
The ANA fire was the fourth serious incident stemming from a malfunction of one of the plane’s lithium-ion batteries, which are found in both the forward and aft underfloor electronics bays. The first two resulted in emergency landings — one during a pre-delivery test flight in 2010; the other two months ago by a United 787 in New Orleans. Then, on January 7th, a fire broke out on a Japan Airlines (JAL) 787 parked at the gate at Boston’s Logan International Airport. In the JAL incident, the fire was in the aft bay, and involved the battery used to start the jet’s auxiliary power unit, or APU. (The APU is a small turbine engine used to supply power when the engines aren’t running. All commercial jets have APUs, and they are normally located in a compartment beneath the tail.) A day later, mechanics at United found a defective wire bundle connected to the APU battery of a 787 while performing an inspection prompted by the Boston incident.
Finally, Wednesday’s ANA incident pushed things over the line.
In each instance, the fires occurred in sealed, isolated compartments and did not spread to other areas of the plane. Nevertheless, any onboard fire is dangerous, and the decision to cease all flying, however unfortunate, was the correct course of action.
It remains to be seen how long the planes will be grounded, how much the fixes will cost, and what exactly needs to be done. There will be much discussion regarding Boeing’s decision to rely on powerful but potentially unstable lithium-ion batteries, and we can expect one or more emergency Airworthiness Directives, as they’re known, issued from the FAA, mandating changes to the plane’s batteries, and perhaps to the fire-protection aspects of its electronics compartments.
Lithium-ion batteries, similar versions of which power most personal computers, are smaller and lighter than traditional batteries, but have a known propensity for hazardous “thermal runaway” conditions that can result in fires. The FAA recently banned the carriage of lithium batteries in passenger luggage. In 2006, a UPS cargo freighter made an emergency landing in Philadelphia after a shipment of lithium batteries caught fire in the cargo compartment. The plane was destroyed. And last year, the fatal crash of a UPS 747 near Dubai is believed to have been caused by a large shipment of lithium batteries that ignited during flight. (The halon extinguishing systems used in the cargo compartments of commercial planes has only limited effectiveness against these fires.)
The 787 grounding call wasn’t one the FAA wanted to make, but neither is such a move unprecedented. It happened with the Comet in the 1950s, and in 1979 with the DC-10. Was it an easy thing to do? No. Was it the right and prudent thing to do? Yes.
There’s both a good and bad to this, I suppose.
The bad is evident enough: this is a huge and costly black eye for Boeing and its customers. But it could be a lot worse. The good is that the grounding came preemptively, before anybody was seriously hurt or killed. It’s also helpful that the problem, as we understand it thus far, is eminently fixable. Serious as a battery fire might be, this isn’t a structural defect that’ll wind up costing billions. Leading up to the 787’s launch, all of the talk was focused on the uniqueness of plane’s carbon-fiber construction. Any serious failure of that could have doomed the entire 787 project to failure, and possibly dragged all of Boeing down with it. But to this point, composites have been a nonexistent issue. These other problems are nothing by comparison, and a year from now I suspect all of this will be forgotten.
And here’s hoping the media can keep its cool once the plane is up and flying again — as should be the case in relatively short order. For better and worse, we can expect 787s everywhere to be under intense scrutiny. That’s beneficial for obvious reasons, but also potentially troubling, because the media, which goes bonkers over almost anything involving airplanes, aided and empowered by the tools of our age — i.e. Twitter, YouTube, and blogs not unlike my own — is liable to sensationalize even the most minor malfunctions, including those that have nothing to do with the plane’s engineering.
This will be an interesting story to follow, but be cautious of hype and hysteria.
For additional details on this developing story, see Christine Negroni’s coverage here.
And for a first-hand account of my own recent ride on a 787, see this story.
— United Airlines is the only U.S. operator of the 787. Others are All Nippon Airways (ANA), Japan Airlines (JAL), Air India, Poland’s LOT, Ethiopian Airlines, LAN of Chile, and Qatar Airways.
— Aircraft avionics and electronics compartments usually have temperature or smoke detectors, but full-on extinguishing systems are limited to engines, APU, cargo compartments, and in some cases the main landing gear bay. Each of these is equipped with one or more “fire bottles,” as pilots call them — pressurized spherical tanks containing a powerful extinguishing agent, usually Halon.
— That Turkish DC-10 crash near Paris in ’74 ranks fourth deadliest of all time, with 346 fatalities. Following the accident, McDonnell Douglas redesigned the cargo door locking system.