Dreamliner Quick Fix Looks Less Likely

dreamlinerWASHINGTON (CNN) — As the mystery deepened surrounding the new 787 Dreamliner battery system, U.S. transportation investigators were set to conduct more tests aimed at determining the cause of a fire central to the grounding of the Boeing jetliners.

The National Transportation Safety Board planned the next round of testing this week at a facility in Arizona.

Earlier tests conducted in Washington showed that a lithium-ion battery that caught fire aboard an empty Japan Airlines 787 in Boston this month was not overcharged, the board said on Sunday.

Suspicions about the batteries and possible fire risk prompted the Federal Aviation Administration and regulatory agencies in other nations to ground all 50 Dreamliners worldwide last week, pending an investigation of the Boston fire and other reports of mechanical problems.

The stakes are high. Dreamliner, which costs about $200 million and debuted 15 months ago, is the first major airliner to be rolled out in years. United Airlines is the only current American operator of the aircraft with six.

Sunday’s NTSB announcement “doesn’t bode as well for a quick fix as Boeing would have liked,” said John Goglia, a former member of the safety board, which investigates aviation and other transportation accidents.

“It’s one step in the process. It’s not great news, but it’s not bad news either,” Goglia said.

Mary Schiavo, a former U.S. Transportation Department inspector general who remains outspoken on aviation safety as a lawyer in private practice, agreed with Goglia.

“It does not sound like a quick resolution is in store for Boeing,” the former government watchdog said.

The probe focuses on the 787’s cutting-edge lithium ion battery system, which is the most extensive airliner battery network of its kind. Other airline battery systems are mostly powered by more traditional and heavier nickel cadmium cells.

On Tuesday in Arizona, a safety board team planned to widen its search for a cause of the Boston fire.

The team will test the battery charger and download computer memory components from the auxiliary power unit, or APU, controller, the agency said. The APU powers non-propulsion systems aboard an airliner.

The examination of data from the Boston 787 indicated its APU battery did not appear to be overcharged by exceeding its designed voltage of 32 volts, according to Sunday’s NTSB statement. But experts pointed out to CNN that there was no mention in the statement about how quickly the JAL 787 battery was discharging.

Discharging the battery too quickly, or with too low voltage, can also cause it to overheat, said University of Dayton professor Raul Ordonez, an aircraft electrical and computer engineer who spent time observing Dreamliner development at Boeing’s Seattle headquarters.

Investigators in Washington have taken X-rays and CT scans of the lithium-ion battery that caught fire in Boston, the NTSB said, and they have taken the battery apart and examined some of its individual cells.

The agency said it has also examined several other components from the plane, including wire bundles and battery management circuit boards.

“The fact that the NTSB is basically looking at every component around the battery, including the computer hardware and the (memory) software, means that they have no idea yet about a culprit and (they) suspect everything,” Ordonez said.

Whatever the fix, Schiavo said any changes other than minor will require at least some re-engineering which will in turn require FAA approval. Both of those can result in a “slow process taking months, depending on the extent of engineering changes.”

The batteries in question are manufactured by Japan’s GS Yuasa, under a subcontract to France-based Thales, Boeing said. Kyoto-based GS Yuasa says it has dispatched a team to Washington to help in the investigation.

Boeing is using the lithium-ion batteries to electronically assist some of the functions that were previously performed using hydraulics. A lighter plane is more fuel efficient, which is one of the 787’s main selling points.

There is no need to drain lithium-ion batteries fully before recharging, meaning less maintenance, though they can catch fire if overcharged.

The grounding resulted from recent mechanical and other glitches culminating with the fire in Boston and an emergency landing in Japan last week prompted by a battery alarm. Some of the 129 people aboard reported a burning smell in the cabin, and an alarm indicated smoke in an electrical compartment.

The FAA issued a directive last week ordering all U.S. 787s not to fly until the problems are resolved. Other nations quickly followed suit, including the Polish carrier LOT, which told CNN in a statement it is considering seeking compensation from Boeing for costs associated with the grounding.

“We are preparing for such a solution. At this moment it’s too early to reveal any news.” the statement said.

Airbus uses lithium-ion batteries to power some systems aboard its A350 airliners. A spokeswoman said in a statement to CNN that Airbus “will carefully study any recommendations that come out of the 787 investigation and evaluate whether they apply to the A350 XWB,” a new airliner still being developed by Airbus.

“Boeing was very, very lucky there was no catastrophic event,” said Schiavo. “But, the luckiest of all is Airbus … now they can make the fixes [to the A350 XWB] without the public relations hit Boeing has taken.”

Boeing said Friday it will not deliver any Dreamliners to its customers as it works with the FAA over the battery concerns.

“We need to get the bottom of this,” said Goglia. “We need to get comfortable with flying these airplanes again.”

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