Dreamliner Two Months Later: No End in Sight to Battery Nightmare

By Paul Riegler on 9 March 2013
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NTSB Releases Interim Report, Plans to Hold Hearings in April

Passengers awaiting rebooking after 787 grounding

Passengers awaiting rebooking after 787 grounding

Almost two months ago, Jonathan Spira, FBT’s editorial director, was sitting at Chicago-O’Hare airport waiting to board LOT Polish Airlines’ inaugural Dreamliner flight to Warsaw.  The inaugural flight from Warsaw to Chicago had just arrived.  But only a few hours earlier, another Boeing 787, this one belonging to ANA, had to make an emergency landing at Takamatsu Airport in Japan after smoke was detected in the cabin.  Roughly one week before that, a Japan Airlines 787 caught fire while sitting parked at Boston’s Logan Airport.  Both fires were caused by the 787’s large lithium-ion batteries.

A chain of events followed including an announcement by JAL and All Nippon Airways, the world’s two largest operators of the 787, that they would ground their Dreamliner fleet “for inspection” for several days.  The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration then issued an order grounding U.S. airlines’ Dreamliner fleets, an order which only affected United Airlines, the sole U.S. operator of the type.

LOT officials were in a quandary.  The inaugural flight had left Warsaw at 4:18 p.m. local time and a LOT official said that the flight was uneventful and “as planned.”  Ultimately, LOT decided to cancel the flight to Warsaw, a decision one LOT executive said was “voluntary” although that same person said that the airline had consulted with both Boeing and the FAA prior to making a final decision. Mr. Spira, of course, went home instead of going to Warsaw.

Other regulatory authorities around the world followed suit and, by the next morning, the world’s fleet of 50 Dreamliners had been grounded.

Fast forward to today, almost two months later.  While there have been a few Dreamliner flights to reposition aircraft, little has changed otherwise.

On Thursday, the National Transportation Safety Board released several files including an Interim Factual Report and a Materials Laboratory Factory Report covering the investigation of the two lithium-ion battery fires to date.   The reports didn’t provide any answers about the fire on the ANA 787 or on the earlier fire in an empty JAL 787 in Boston, but did present an excellent, in-depth narrative of the investigation to date.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that neither Boeing nor federal safety investigators are close to finding an answer as to why the two batteries on two separate Dreamliners caught fire and started smoking seven weeks ago.

Also on Thursday, in a move that does not bode well for a quick return to the skies for the Dreamliner, the NTSB announced plans to hold two hearings in April that will examine the question of whether lithium-ion batteries are safe on airplanes.

The National Transportation Safety Board plans two hearings or forums in April to explore whether lithium-ion batteries are safe on jetliners.  The goal, according to NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman, is to “better understand the risks and benefits associated with lithium batteries, and illuminate how manufacturers evaluate the safety of [this] new technology.

The delay presents a huge conundrum for Boeing, which not only has continued to build an aircraft that isn’t approved to fly but has expanded its production lines to double the number of Dreamliners it can produce.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, before the NTSB announced its interim report or plans for April hearings, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, told reporters that he’s going to “ask a lot of questions” before he and the Federal Aviation Administration allow the Dreamliner to return to service.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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