Reports that a US Senate committee will examine the FAA in relation to the certification of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s use of lithium ion batteries will no doubt dismay many airlines and those keen to see the new airliner show what it can do.
If there is any comfort to be had in this it is that what happens in the Senate ought not significantly divert the FAA and its Japan counterparts from pursuing a resolution of the issues that caused Japan to ground its 787s, and after a bit of silly hoop la from the US administration, for it to follow suit.
There are two inquiries underway in the US. The FAA is already reviewing the program, with an emphasis on the battery issues, but also related matters, and the NTSB is investigating the two incidents that affected a Japan Airlines 787-8 on the ground at Boston Airport as well as the emergency landing of an All Nippon Dreamliner in Japan in conjunction with Japan’s safety investigation into that incident.
The issues under question in relation to the Dreamliner being certified could be of immense importance to the airline sector in general as the plane makers increasingly seek to exploit the claimed advantages of new materials, which can be seen as extending beyond high energy lower reliability batteries and load bearing composites to new hybrid composite alloy materials, and systems advances.
It is true that all of this could seriously impact the return to service of the 787, and the entry into service of the comparable yet materially different Airbus A350, which is already delayed and was not expected to start commercial flights until late 2014 before the Dreamliner issues raised its exposure to similar risks.
But the problems that the Dreamliner experienced come down to some unpalatable realities. It suffered two serious incidents that Boeing has said were impossible when it persuaded the FAA to allow key exceptions to the rules in its incorporation of high capacity cutting edge lithium-ion batteries, which have been used uneventfully in the A380 for more than five years, and are designed into the A350.
Boeing’s use of this battery technology is of a higher order than seen in the more conservative applications in the A380 and A350. And there are other significant differences, as would be expected in what are three fundamentally differing designs in their size, range-payload specifications and engineering solutions.
With a backlog of more than 800 orders for 787s from eager, if not in some cases, desperate customers who need the advertised cost efficiencies of the Dreamliners, reports suggesting Boeing is seething over what it sees as an unnecessary grounding are credible.
However Boeing and the FAA have to get this right. The 787 did not behave as expected or promised in the JAL and ANA incidents. It is a jet that is intended to be flown over long distances which will including oceanic and polar routings. These issues must be resolved convincingly, and a return to flight which brings a return to these problems will have adverse consequences neither Boeing nor the airlines nor regulators could tolerate.