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air safety

Feb 9, 2013

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Boeing’s belated and low key admissions of some delays to Dreamliner 787 deliveries in recent hours can be seen more as an indicator of management’s capacity for honesty and transparency than a sudden revelation that the program is in trouble.

Why is the manufacturer the last entity on the planet to recognise the obvious?

The question is all the more relevant considering the apparent haste with which it handled the original data it used to persuade the US Federal Aviation Administration to certify its use of lithium-ion batteries in the airliner as safe.

The validity or authenticity of that data is now in doubt, officially, in statements made by the NTSB, the US air safety investigator, and the FAA, the safety regulator, which is, in plain English, reviewing the quality and integrity of the process by which it originally certified the Dreamliners.

The jets are now grounded, and that batteries will have to be modified or replaced, which means tested and re-certified as safe.

No-one familiar with the intricacies and requirements of such a process expects this to be achieved in a short time, and the responses that came from Boeing to these matters were delusional, and unhelpful to customers with billions of dollars worth of Dreamliners on order for delivery in the next year or so, including Qantas.

The real health check for Boeing management will come when it is made up of people who will deal bluntly and honestly with the situation, and as far as the 787 is concerned, this has yet to happen.

In other reports Airbus is said to be preemptively moving to replace the lithium-ion batteries in its forthcoming A350 series of airliners with ‘different’ battery technology.  This has been anticipated, but not yet confirmed, ever since the 787s were grounded on 17 January.

The A350 has four lithium-ion batteries similar to the two currently onboard 787s. However these jets which are slightly larger than the corresponding models in the  787 line, make less in-flight use of electrical power and rely on bleed air from the engines for cabin pressurisation in a conventional manner.

Boeing sources are reported as conceding that the 787 can be run with less inherently unstable batteries than the lithium-ion design it chose, and hinted at using an alternative type in a longer term ‘fix’ for the current problems, while pushing for an interim ‘fix’ in which the existing batteries are binned in an enclosure in which any fire or thermal runaway event would be entirely contained safely in the belly of the aircraft.

 

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