air safety

Jan 31, 2013

Dreamliners: Inevitable delay weighs heavier by the day

Going on comments made by Boeing management during last night’s Q4 earnings conference call the company still has its head in 2008, when what now appears to have been a seriously wrong turn in the design and certification process was taken.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

If, stress ‘if’ it is necessary to replace the heavy duty lithium ion batteries in the Boeing 787 Dreamliners  to prevent the failures that have grounded the new airliner, the delays involved in designing and certifying the changes could be between 12-18 months according to a US report.

That report, by Seattle Times reporter Dominic Gates, focuses on the 2011 destruction of a new Cessna Citation jet by such a battery fire.

The Citation fire led rapidly to the replacement of its lithium ion battery with an older technology less volatile type of battery, and is now being followed up with a final solution that returns to lithium ion battery technology but within an armored box that is in the rigorous process of being certified to fully contain all of the potentially lethal consequences of a major malfunction like those which occurred this month in Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways 787s.

It has been argued, at great length, in the more technical media, that such an option isn’t suitable for the 787 which is much more electric power dependent than any other airliner design, with requirements that have been compared to those of a larger suburban housing estate.

Dissenting analysis has argued that such an interim solution is workable if getting Dreamliners back into service, even without the regulatory authority to fly for long distances over oceanic routes far from emergency airports, becomes an acceptable course of action.

(This would not seem to offer any comfort to Jetstar, which was to start getting 787-8s in the second half of this year, for flights to Singapore, Beijing, Honolulu, Tokyo and Osaka.)

The US aviation media has been repeatedly quoting from assurances given by Boeing during the certification process for the Dreamliner as to how its design prevented incidents like those which led to the 787 grounding from happening.

Going on comments made by Boeing management during last night’s Q4 earnings conference call the company  still has its head in 2008, when what now appears to have been a seriously wrong turn in the design and certification process was taken.

But while Boeing says that the 787 is safe, and that everything is under control and of minor importance,  there should be no doubt that a maximum effort to  identifying the causes of the failures and devise solutions is underway.

Boeing’s credibility is being constantly ripped apart by its past statements.  It’s most recent commentary risks causing similar damage. The need to synch words with realities has not, as yet, sunk in, and when it does the past will bite it again.

So far the company has not embraced an offer of help from Elon Musk, the entrepreneur and engineer who heads the SpaceX private rocket launcher company and Telsa electric car maker, both with a track record for using lithium ion batteries with 100% reliability.

Musk has identified what he regards as a major flaw in the use of large cell lithium ion batteries by Boeing, as reviewed in the Flightglobal report.

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.

“Unfortunately, the pack architecture supplied to Boeing is inherently unsafe,” writes Musk in an email to Flightglobal.

“Large cells without enough space between them to isolate against the cell-to-cell thermal domino effect means it is simply a matter of time before there are more incidents of this nature,” he adds.

Both Boeing and Tesla use batteries fueled by lithium cobalt oxide, which is among the most energy-dense and flammable chemistries of lithium-ion batteries on the market. While Boeing elected to use a battery with a grouping of eight large cells, Tesla’s batteries contain thousands of smaller cells that are independently separated to prevent fire in a single cell from harming the surrounding ones.

“Moreover, when thermal runaway occurs with a big cell, a proportionately larger amount of energy is released and it is very difficult to prevent that energy from then heating up the neighboring cells and causing a domino effect that results in the entire pack catching fire,” says Musk.


At this stage, the operational records of SpaceX and Tesla, and Musk’s commentary are of compelling interest, because like it or not,  they may point to the solution.

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16 thoughts on “Dreamliners: Inevitable delay weighs heavier by the day

  1. comet

    This must be the worst grounding of an airliner since the DC10 in the year 1979.

    The DC10 was grounded for just over a month. It’s looking like the 787 Dreamliner will be grounded for many months, at the very least.

    We could draw a parallel to the De Havilland Comet groundings in the 1950s. Maybe by Version IV of the Dreamliner, Boeing will finally have got it right.

  2. keesje

    “Going on comments made by Boeing management during last night’s Q4 earnings conference call”

    Reading the quotes I was amazed too. My opinion after following all those quaterly conferences is it is always a good news show because everybody wants it to be. The stockvalue is extremely important for all involved.

  3. reeves35

    Ben, if, as seems possible, the 787 is cleared to fly again but without ETOPS over, say 120 minutes, is it possible that Qantas will again restructure its plans for the 787s introduction and send them to QF domestic and keep all available A330-200s for Jetstar? At least, this would enable the 767 retirement plan to progress.

    Of course, the alternative is get another big compensation cheque from Boeing and buy more A330s though I think Airbus has no production slots on these for ages!!

  4. Glen McCabe

    Are there any good used A330s available from airlines moving up to new B777s etc? Airlines looking to sell A330s about now would be able to name their price, such should be the demand from disappointed B787 customers…

  5. patrick kilby

    Emirates have few spare A332s which given the recent agreement may mean QF get first dibs at them.

  6. Ben Sandilands

    Airbus has been reluctant to say exactly what it might do to increase A330 production rates, in part because of an embargo on China purchases of European aircraft during the EU insistence on levying an ETS charge on non EU carriers.

    Even though this has been lifted there has been no clear indication of action.

    Similarly it has been unmoved thus far to re-engine to create an A330 NEO program, which just about everyone in the game thinks would sell like cold beer in a heat wave.

    Even without an NEO option, it has also made incremental improvements that have made the A330s to be built with them starting within two years more than capable of competing effectively with a 787 that matures into a better jet than it was on introduction.

    The speculation that hums along in the background is that Airbus will balance the opportunities presented by a quick introduction of a ‘game winning’ re-engined A330 line up when it has a clear idea as just how badly delayed the A350s will be (even before the battery controversy) and whether or not there could be a really serious delay to the largest of the family the A350-1000.

    So, bad news for the A350 might mean very good news for the A330.

    Meanwhile, good used A330s at anything like realistic prices are just about impossible to obtain. No make that impossible. It is a similar situation with good used 777s, keeping in mind that the 777-200ER might not be as big or potent as a 777-300ER, but it is an incredibly good aircraft, except over shorter ranges where the A330 reigns unchallenged.

    I think it is reasonable speculation to expect Boeing with the 777 and Airbus with the A330s to make some left field decisions as to how they finesse and market these jets if problems persist with the 787 and become apparent in the A350.

  7. Merve

    Plenty of A340 around, at a good price. 🙂

  8. fractious

    I’ve read that the A350 uses Li-Ion batteries – does anyone know if these (and the safety systmes) are the same design as the problematic ones on the 787?

    Airbus’ PR unit will doubtless work overtime to make sure it doesn’t indulge (or even appear to indulge) in a bit of gloating, but I would be very surprised if Airbus didn’t try to make a bit of mileage out of this.

  9. Ben Sandilands

    It uses four Li-ion batteries similar to the two in the 787, but it draws far less power than the latter even though it is a larger aircraft because it retains conventional bleed air driven functions that the Dreamliner moved to electrically driven control surfaces and cabin pressurisation and so forth. It has been claimed by Airbus that its Lithium ion batteries will be worked only half as hard as each 787 battery.

    There is no sign of gloating from Airbus, which seems to be totally absorbed at the moment by dealing with the ‘challenges’ of the A350 that had become apparent even before the 787s were grounded. But I am ignoring the usual fan boy nonsense that goes on elsewhere by the brand warriors for Airbus and Boeing. These are serious technical matters for both plane makers, and I think in the case of Boeing, serious management matters as well.

  10. johnb78

    The A350 batteries are smaller than the 787 batteries, made by a different supplier, and according to Airbus have better cooling and venting.

  11. Ben Sandilands

    The later A340-600s are despite all the silly things said about them, very good aircraft, and provided you didn’t get an IFE box blocking your legroom in economy, a very pleasant airliner to fly in. Ditto the A340-500, although its most economical applications were on the least economical of routes, in ultra-long haul flights like Singapore-Newark.

  12. Merve

    “Airbus’ PR unit will doubtless work overtime to make sure it doesn’t indulge (or even appear to indulge) in a bit of gloating, but I would be very surprised if Airbus didn’t try to make a bit of mileage out of this.”

    I think they will be hard at working revising their battery managment design right now, making sure they haven’t made the same mistakes Boeing did.

  13. keesje

    What Airbus can do and probably will do is revisit and probably extend the scope and duration of the tests involving the Li Ion batteries they specified for the A350, just to make sure.

    Re A330 NEO, we have discussed it for years. I’ve no signs of movement within Airbus. Amazingly because it could have easily have the A330 outsell the A330 after that aircrafts launch.

    With the A350 coming into production it’s feasibility declines. Unless Airbus focusses on the segment below the A350, 200-300 seats short/ medium haul now occupied by the A300/A310, 757, 767 and Tu154. Would mean a light new wing/ wingbox though, A310 style.

  14. Uwe

    The only party heavy into hyperbole is Boeing.
    Either for touting their own horn or dissing the competition.

    Where Airbus has been alleged of tall statements it later came
    out as “on the mark”.

    I don’t think Airbus has a “selfcertification” arrangement with EASA
    in the way it has been shown to work between Boeing and the FAA.

    Airbus will have a problem at hand if FAA comes out of this headshy and banishes Li-Ion all around. In all other cases Airbus appears well prepared.
    As with the whole 787 thing Airbus position will be “we thought they would get issues with that kind of solution”.

  15. ghostwhowalksnz

    because of the delays in bringing 787s to market. the L-ion battery chemistry that Boeing used ( Li- Cobalt Oxide) is a bit old hat now.
    Im sure that Airbus has been heading in the direction of the newer Lithium Nickel Cobalt Aluminium oxide chemistry.

  16. Uwe

    Airbus had decided on flying Li-Ion on the A380 long before Boeing ever thought about the Dreamliner. Only not for the primary batteries. Airbus evolves their products. They don’t try to leapfrog the competition with haphzard materials selections they lack experience with.

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