air safety

Jan 30, 2013

Dreamliner: Boeing knew of 10 other 787 battery incidents

After years of lying about its Dreamliner project Boeing has now been caught by investigative reporters on the NYT withholding information that would have assisted the current investigation into battery fires on two 787s.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

A damning story about what Boeing knew about earlier multiple and quite serious failures in the batteries in All Nippon Airways 787s has been broken in the New York Times.

The well referenced story implies very clearly that Boeing kept silent over vital information after the two incidents in a JAL and an ANA Dreamliner that lead to the groundings of the jet that Boeing has insisted wasn’t necessary.

This is an extract from the NYT story that casual visitors to its site will be able to read in full:

Officials at All Nippon Airways, the jets’ biggest operator, said in an interview on Tuesday that it had replaced 10 of the batteries in the months before fire and smoke in two cases caused regulators around the world to ground the jets.

The airline said it had told Boeing of the replacements as they occurred but had not been required to report them to safety regulators because no flights were canceled or delayed. National Transportation Safety Board officials said Tuesday that the replacements were now part of their inquiry.

The airline also, for the first time, explained the extent of the previous problems, which underscore the volatile nature of the batteries and add to concerns over whether Boeing and other plane manufacturers will be able to use the batteries safely.

In five of the 10 replacements, All Nippon said that the main battery had showed an unexpectedly low charge. An unexpected drop in a 787’s main battery also occurred on the All Nippon flight that had to make an emergency landing in Japan on Jan. 16.

The airline also revealed that in three instances, the main battery failed to operate normally and had to be replaced along with the charger. In other cases, one battery showed an error reading and another, used to start the auxiliary power unit, failed. All the events occurred from May to December of last year. And all the batteries were returned to their maker, GS Yuasa.

Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators had only recently heard that there had been “numerous issues with the use of these batteries” on 787s. She said the board had asked Boeing, All Nippon and other airlines for information about the problems.

“That will absolutely be part of the investigation,” she said.

Several matters stand out. Boeing leaned on the FAA not to require a fire suppression system in the relation to lithium ion batteries in the 787 because a fire was impossible.

Boeing has resisted the grounding order, as well documented in the US media.

And Boeing has been insisting to its customers, like Norwegian, which is due to put 787s in service in April, that the grounding order will soon be lifted.

What does it take to make Boeing get real on these matters?

What does it take for it to become an accountable and transparent company prepared to face the consequences of obvious problems with the Dreamliner, and with its certification by an FAA that is now supposed to be reviewing its own actions in approving the jet as safe to fly?

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21 thoughts on “Dreamliner: Boeing knew of 10 other 787 battery incidents

  1. comet

    The scary part is that there were ten more battery failures aboard Dreamliners over Japan, yet they weren’t reported to authorities.

    What is wrong with the regulations that failures aboard aircraft don’t need to be reported? What is wrong with Boeing that it seemingly sat on this information, while allowing the public to continue flying aboard the unsafe Dreamliner? The fire aboard the ANA flight and emergency landing in Japan could have easily caused deaths.

    At the minimum, I can see Boeing being ordered to redesign the battery system, splitting the load across many smaller cells, and adding active cooling, similar to the battery arrays being used in Tesla electric cars. Such a redesign and recertification would have to take months. It would be even more costly if Boeing was ordered to revert to Nickel batteries, like Cessna was.

    The Cessna battery fire incident occurred in late 2011. It reverted to Nickel Cadmium, but is still trying to get a redesigned lithium battery requalified in time for a mid-2013 redeployment. These things take a long time.

    Quote: “Boeing has been insisting to its customers …that the grounding order will soon be lifted.”

    Ben, I get the impression that you don’t believe anything that Boeing says!

  2. paddy

    Interesting post on Flight Global about this issue.

    The lithium ion batteries installed on the Boeing 787 are inherently unsafe, says Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and owner of electric car maker Tesla.

  3. ianjohnno1

    …because a fire was impossible.

    That will go down in history amongst gems such as They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist….

  4. discus

    Some big heads need to roll over this. Boeing has lost the plot. They’ve bet the farm on this aircraft and look to have been covering up serious problems. The big question for operators current and future is, what else, if anything are they hiding?

  5. Mark Parker

    Hi Comet,
    Your comment “What is wrong with Boeing that it seemingly sat on this information, while allowing the public to continue flying aboard the unsafe Dreamliner?”

    Shades of Airbus going about a quiet fix for the Trent engines on the A380 and hoping that one wouldn’t have an uncontained failure?

    On a separate point for Ben’s input – how long before a class action lawsuit is launched in the US by shareholders? Surely at some point the share price will suffer, losses will mount and shareholders will get pretty angry…

  6. Ben Sandilands

    In the court papers filed by Qantas in advance of the settlement with Rolls-Royce it was the engine maker that had failed to inform Qantas as to the ‘quiet fix’.

    Had this gone to trial it could have become quite intense, as a cursory account of the maintenance deal Qantas had done outsourced not just the heavy engine maintenance, but any need to be informed as to service bulletins or modifications.

    I think you are right about a class action being a distinct possibility. I’d also keep an eye out for protective reorganisation of the company if things go more rapidly pear shaped. It could be a long wait for any such action to come to any useful conclusion, if at all.

  7. Mark Parker

    Thanks Ben – a silly oversight on my part (gosh, I’d get a job at the AFR at this rate…) – clearly given the nature of modern jet aircraft, the idea that the airline vendor or a parts vendor would suppress critical information is very concerning – the point I was making to Comet is that Boeing isn’t alone in being ‘economical’ with information and the truth…

  8. discus

    Dave re: 100 “failed” batteries. Whilst I am right behind holding Boeing and other parties responsible for the stuff ups I am not too sure that all 100 are actually equipment failures. Many I expect are maintenance / operator errors. There are numerous ways an aircraft battery can be accidentally discharged. It happens a lot. The fact these ones “lock out” when at 15% capacity rendering them technically unserviceable is not really a fault but a ‘must have’ feature designed to prevent a real problem. In other words doing what the system should. The fact such protections are necessary to protect an inherently unstable cell is another thing altogether.

  9. Achmad Osman

    In my view, suggesting that the actions of Roll-Royce (not Airbus) in changing the manufacturing process of it’s flanges is similar to Boeing’s withholding of lots of information quiet is a bit unfair. So far no one has suggested that Rolls knowingly allowed an unsafe engine into the air carrying passengers – until some of the comments here. Such suggestions has to be tested first before they are lent credibility.

    In this B787 case, lets say the battery manufacturer redesigns the battery design and adds additional charge/discharge safeguards, Boeing still has to redesign the areas where batteries are stored to vent fumes to the outside of the jet. In my mind, this will take months.
    It is possible that the A350 might fly before the B787 is re-launched.

  10. Dan

    James Surowiecki implies the old McDonnell-Douglas management who took over after Boeing bought them turned it from an organisation lead by tech nerds to one lead by bean counters…

  11. Ben Sandilands

    To take up Achmad’s points I have no doubt that had this come to trial between QF and RR the very question as to what judgments framed the engine makers decisions as to when and for whom the upgrades to the Trents were made would have proven ugly, and fascinating.

    Qantas was the only user of the Trents to run them at 72,000 lbs rather than 70,000 lbs, and in the filed papers the airline pointed to the necessity of that setting to do LAX back to MEL non-stop. While much of the material in dispute between Qantas and RR was misdirected, in that it turned out to be a manufacturing fault, I have watched senior counsel in full flight as a Herald court reporter in my earlier years, and I have not a moment’s doubt that the word ‘safety’ would have been used like a bayonet to trap RR witnesses into conceding ground over what the risk/safety situation was.

    Settling before trial was undoubtedly the least ‘bloody’ course of action for both parties.

  12. Rowell David

    The thought about a class action lawsuit by aggrieved shareholders is a good one, but the thing is there is precious little evidence of much reduction in Boeing’s share price – at least, so far.

    This should show the daily price of BA stock over the last month. While there were drops on 8 Jan (after the 7 Jan fire) and then on 11 Jan (the FAA announces it is fully confident but will investigate anyway) and on 16 Jan (the 787s are taken out of service) the price has generally recovered after each dip – and remember that the scale on this chart is exaggerated because it doesn’t start at zero.

    There’s barely a 5% drop from the peak in Jan to the present level. It surprises me how blase investors have been so far.

    Well, it does and it doesn’t surprise me. Longer term, the 787 still remains assured and unthreatened as a plane (no, that is not my endorsement of it, I’m with Ben on this one, absolutely), and the current situation doesn’t threaten to delay Boeing’s ongoing production of the planes or even its reported deliveries by the end of the current quarter, or so the shareholders are clearly betting.

    My gosh – shareholders taking a ‘long term’ view (ie one quarter) for a change. Amazing!

  13. patrick kilby

    I suspect like the A380 wing fix a solution will be mandated (new Ni-Cad batteries or new cooling system) but unlike the A380 wing fix the planes may not fly until all are retrofitted. Do I see a fourth year on the 787 delay. The 789 (like the A350) may be perfectly timed to accommodate the new battery design/fix while the 788s are languish with further delays

  14. Harry

    My reading of the NYT and Seattle Times articles is that:
    – 100+ Li-Co batteries have discharged below 15% charge
    – 10 of those batteries have unexpectedly discharged
    – In every case, the safety features developed by GS Yuasa and Boeing operated as intended, preventing the batteries from being recharged, which would create a risk of fire due to the chemistry of a Li-Co cell.

    I take the point that these batteries clearly have *reliability* issues, which GS Yuasa, Boeing, JAL and ANA were all well aware of (and which should definitely be addressed), but none of this points at a *fire* risk – the engineering controls Boeing had put in place operated as intended in the 100+ previous cases.

    Whether there was a broader safety risk associated with the potential loss of backup power is a separate issue, but I presume not. From the Seattle article, it seems that the vast majority of the battery failures occurred on the tarmac – the result of improper maintenance (etc) practices running the battery flat while the engines are off. I presume (feel free to correct me though) that an in-flight failure would have been reportable to the relevant authorities. The ‘unexpected’ discharges clearly warrant further investigation, but that would depend on what ANA meant by ‘unexpected’ – the unexpected outcome of poor maintenance, or genuinely inexplicable…

    TL;DR – Neither the NYT nor the Seattle Times link the 100+ battery discharges to the fires, or to a safety issue. They do link them to an on-ground reliability issue and point out that Boeing’s safety controls worked in every one of the 100+ cases.

  15. Ben Sandilands

    Earlier this afternoon the mail was that it is the 10 incidents mentioned to the NYT that matter, not the other 100 odd quality control or ground error related matters, disturbing though they may be.

    The NTSB clearly thinks so too. And definitely didn’t know of the matters raised by the NYT. So I’m, guessing here that we may have a shocked and annoyed investigator. It would be an immense relief to all I think if a link between the two incidents and mishandling of the batteries as a power source by ground crew could be found to be the cause. But that still leaves us with one fire that burned for 99 minutes despite the attendance of a fire brigade and the advantage, not available in flight, of an open hatch, while in the other incident, a large amount of toxic or hazardous material was extruded into a compartment under the cockpit which was not a previously envisaged or intended scenario.

  16. keesje

    Well Boeing can do this, because it’s an innovative aircraft. They will make enough money to compensate these failures. They sold nearly 1000, so it is safe. Stockholdersafety.

  17. Jeff Lewis

    A fascinating aspect of this matter (at least to me) is how it presents in real-time the enormous investment in spin used by aviation interests (Boeing, FAA, airlines, etc.). The objective from the highest powers in aviation is clearly to stick this problem to the lowest ranking player. Damn, it would be nice to find a faulty batch of batteries. When that fails, maybe the ramprat doing maintenance was wreckless? Shoot, cross that one out, so … it was Japanese regulators obsessed with economic growth. Nope. Slowly, we keep climbing up the ladder until we find the lowest level fallguy. Meanwhile, where is the accountability at the top?

    As in most parts of life, classic simplicity rules. The simple fact is, as proven already by the pile of evidence that players have wrongly hidden from important authorities like NTSB, we have a documented history showing a fire-prone system. If we simply accept those facts and err on the side of safety, this can be cleaned up and we can start to safely enjoy use of the 787.

    Seems ironic that the underlying key purpose of national aviation authorities has always been — for nearly a century now — to build public confidence in the value and safety of aviation. Kinda hard to do that when so many concealments are revealed, when so many public statements are voided days later. (I can sure appreciate, this may have tipped LaHood to decide to go)

    In the end, the worst outcome from this will be if a scapegoat is found, the public forgets all about it, and 300+ die in a fire-induced dive into the ocean. Kinda like what happened with Alaska 261 off California, thirteen years ago tomorrow. I hope the powers can get their acts together…

  18. AngMoh

    Hi Harry,
    I don’t agree your view that there is a reliability issue. I think there is a major issue with the system level design – not necessarily with the battery itself.
    My problem is that a safety system which permanently disables a $16000 USD battery should only activate if something is completely wrong. Every single case should be investigated by default because the point where this safety kicks in should never be reached. Not during flight but also never on the ground. It should not be possible to permanently disable a $16000 battery by leaving the light in the cargo hold on as was suggested in some places.

  19. discus

    Ang Moh,
    I agree they should not, but they do.

    Another cut out circuit prior to reaching the magic 15% should have been installed.

    It is not beyond an aircraft manufacturer to have these cheeky design features. Nice little earner for a flat battery not covered by warranty.
    Engineering training courses would say loud and clear “do not flatten the battery” knowing full well that batteries do get discharged by accident.

    That has come back to bite Boeing though, linking these battery changes with the 2 serious failures. Perhaps a little unfairly but they could have designed it better.

  20. Harry

    Hi AngMoh,

    My understanding is that the chemistry of Li-Co batteries changes when they fall below a certain level of charge, increasing their electrical resistance and thereby making it inherently dangerous to recharge them. Hence the lockout, which can only be overridden by the manufacturer (who would presumably have the ability to properly test the battery to determine whether it is safe to recharge).

    Whether 15% is the appropriate threshold, I have no idea. I’d be fairly certain GS Yuasa would have built in a reasonably substantial margin of error, to ensure the batteries are safe in all circumstances. That margin would certainly have the effect of boosting profits, by requiring some safe batteries to be returned, but seems justifiable on safety grounds provided that it hasn’t been excessively padded.

    Arguably, GS Yuasa could have developed a system that allows operators to check their own batteries. Again, that’s a technical question that goes to what type of testing is actually required to determine that a Li-Co battery can be safely recharged.

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