January 17, 2013 7:58 pm

Grounding threatens Boeing’s 787 dream

An ANA Dreamliner is examined at Tokyo's Haneda airport on January 16 following safety concerns©Reuters

It is 34 years since US regulators last grounded a single passenger jet model in the same way they have with Boeing’s Dreamliner, underlining just how acute their safety concerns are.

In 1979, the US Federal Aviation Administration grounded the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 for more than a month after a fatal crash involving the aircraft.

Late on Wednesday, the FAA stopped US airlines flying the technologically advanced 787 after two possible fires on Dreamliners involving lithium-ion batteries, which are part of the aircraft’s innovative electrical power system.

Aviation regulators around the world copied the FAA’s action, in moves that are expected to result in a worldwide grounding of the 787 while investigations are held into the battery failures.

The FAA has set no time span on the 787 grounding, saying only that US airlines cannot fly Dreamliners until they “demonstrate to the FAA that the batteries are safe”.

Boeing had no immediate comment on Thursday but Jim McNerney, chief executive, said late on Wednesday: “Boeing is committed to supporting the FAA and finding answers as quickly as possible.

“The company is working around the clock with its customers and the various regulatory and investigative authorities.”

This is set to be an expensive episode for Boeing and its 787 – the newest and most sophisticated passenger jet, which sets new standards in fuel efficiency because of the way the company pushed the design boundaries by using lightweight components.

On Thursday, two airlines operating the 787 – All Nippon Airways and LOT Polish Airlines – raised the possibility they could seek compensation from Boeing because of the disruptions to their schedules.

The grounding could also force Boeing to curb its ambitious plans to double production of the Dreamliner to 10 per month by the end of this year.

Increased production is central to Boeing’s growth – particularly after the 787 entered service three years late in 2011 – but airlines are unlikely to take delivery of the 787 if it is not allowed to fly.

So much depends on whether regulators are able to permit a quick fix to the 787’s problems.

GS Yuasa, a Japanese manufacturer, supplies the lithium-ion batteries for the 787, which are used to start the aircraft’s engines and its auxiliary power unit.

If it turns out that a faulty batch of lithium-ion batteries is responsible for the fires, then the grounding could last for only days or a few weeks. Yuasa could not be reached for comment.

But lithium-ion batteries have a record of catching fire in other products – including electric cars and laptops – and analysts said regulators could conceivably conclude they should no longer be installed on the 787 Dreamliner.

This is the first time Boeing has used such batteries on one of its aircraft, and they were chosen partly because they were smaller and lighter than those based on lead acid and nickel-cadmium.

If regulators insist that Boeing switches to different batteries on the 787, it might not be straight­forward – because if they are heavy, the aircraft’s fuel efficiency could be reduced.

Moreover, it may be that regulators discover more fundamental problems with the Dreamliner’s electrical power system.

Partly to save weight on the 787, and therefore improve fuel efficiency, Boeing ditched the pneumatic system used on its existing aircraft, under which hot air is drawn off the engines to power functions ranging from air conditioning in the cabin to de-icing equipment on the Dreamliner’s exterior.

Instead, the 787 has a series of electrical generators to power these functions, and there have been some problems with this system – United Airlines and Qatar Airways reported faults last month.

Should a wide-ranging problem be established with the 787’s electrical power system, requiring an extensive redesign, the Dreamliner’s grounding could last several months.

Rival Airbus was not crowing over Boeing’s difficulties on Thursday, partly because it intends to use lithium-ion batteries on its planned alternative to the 787, the A350.

“We need to remain humble,” said Fabrice Brégier, Airbus’s chief executive. However, he said Airbus had chosen not to copy the 787’s electrical power system and abandoned the pneumatic architecture because of concerns among its engineers that the “technology was not mature enough to bring benefits”.

Airbus’s humility also stems from problems with its A380 Superjumbo – the second-newest passenger jet in service after the 787.

In 2010, Qantas grounded its A380s after one of them suffered an engine blowout, and last year Airbus disclosed a significant wing cracking issue.

Nick Cunningham, analyst at Agency Partners, estimated that it would cost Airbus about €500m to fix the wing cracks, and did not rule out the possibility that the electrical issues on the 787 could present Boeing with a similar bill.

Airbus slowed production of the A380 last year to fix the wing problem, which has also hit superjumbo sales. Last year Airbus secured orders for just nine A380s.

The one crumb of comfort for Boeing is that Airbus’s A380 problems do not seem to have dented consumer appetite to fly on the superjumbo.

Additional reporting by Mark Wembridge

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