Battered by the Battery

I clearly remember seeing a ‘Dreamliner’, or the Boeing 787, being painted as it got ready to be delivered to an airline in the Arabian Gulf.

We were awed when we were told that the 787 will use 20 percent less fuel per passenger than similarly sized airplanes, and produce fewer carbon emissions, and will have quieter take-offs and landings. It was a new revolution in the aviation industry.

However, suddenly, three days ago there was the global grounding of Boeing 787. First, the US Federal Aviation Administration issued a directive, after two major battery malfunctions on its flagship jets were found, that all 787 planes be immediately grounded.

Soon, the European Aviation Safety Agency, like other civil-aviation regulators around the world, issued similar directives.

And by Thursday evening itself, Dominique Fouda, the spokesperson for the European safety regulator said, “There is no Boeing 787 flying anywhere in the world at the moment.”

What surprised me is, both, the attraction and the fear that these planes seem to give people.

Many may not know that soon after 787’s debut flight, the attraction for this plane was such that Boeing received orders for 677 airplanes worth more than $110 billion at current list prices, making the Dreamliner the most successful commercial airplane launch in history. But it was only July 2007.

And, interestingly, the first 787 was not scheduled to enter passenger service until the following year, in May 2008.

Today, with almost all major airlines ordering these planes, there is a big pile up of orders that Boeing needs to deliver, and a huge list of suppliers in the supply chain waiting to send components to Boeing’s Everett facility. It could be hard on airlines, passengers and these suppliers.

The January 16th malfunction that finally triggered the grounding order involved an ANL flight that was diverted to the Takamatsu airport in western Japanwhen pilots detected a burning smell and a cockpit message indicated a battery problem. Immediately, ANL and Japan Airlines (JAL) voluntarily grounded their 787 fleets for an unspecified period immediately afterwards. And the others followed.

But Boeing’s statement said : “We are confident that 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity.  We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the
traveling public of the 787’s safety and to return the airplanes to service.”

I am not aware of the complications involved, but no one likes to hear of a plane malfunction. As a regular flyer, I know what it means.

However, I was slightly relieved to read this on ‘Forbes’ website (on Sunday, 20 January) : The twin-engine 250 passenger 787 Dreamliner is the first commercial aircraft to use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. In a worst-case scenario where they catch fire, they are designed to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten the aircraft. Smoke is vented out of the cabin so that it doesn’t reach the cockpit, and all battery cells can ignite without harming the plane’s ability to stay aloft.

It means the danger is not as dangerous as it sounds. But with planes, no one should take a chance.

The sooner that Boeing’s authorities, civil aviation authorities and the airlines-customers come to an understanding on enhanced safety systems the better it is for all concerned.