The International Herald Tribune
March 8, 2013
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is close to approving tests of Boeing's approach to fixing the batteries on its 787 jets, and the tests could begin next week, government and industry officials have said.
The FAA could still demand changes in Boeing's proposed new battery design if problems develop in the laboratory and flight tests, which will take several weeks. But the decision to start the tests will be a major step in Boeing's efforts to get the innovative jets, which have been grounded since mid-January, back into the air.
The U.S. approvals are expected late this week or early next week, even though some battery specialists remain concerned that investigators have not found the precise causes in two incidents in which the jetliner's new lithium-ion batteries emitted smoke or fire.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent U.S. government agency, has found that a short-circuit in one cell caused a battery in a jet parked at Logan Airport in Boston to overheat and burst into flames Jan. 7.
On Thursday the board released an ''interim factual report'' describing the tests it had conducted on the battery, but said it still had not determined the root cause of the fire.
Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairwoman of the safety board, said Thursday that the agency would hold a forum and a hearing in April related to the investigation.
The forum, which the NTSB said would be held in mid-April, will explore lithium-ion battery technology and transportation safety. The investigative hearing, to be held later in the month, will focus on the design and certification of the 787 battery system.
The agency said both events would be shown as a live webcast and be open to the public.
Investigators in Japan have suggested that a separate problem may have caused the battery on an All Nippon Airways 787 to emit smoke on a flight Jan. 16. They said the battery might have been hit by a surge of electrical current from another part of the plane.
Donald R. Sadoway, a professor of materials chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said the Japanese data suggested that temperatures might have shot much higher in that battery than in the one on the plane in Boston. If that is true, he said, Boeing and the F.A.A. might need to add more steps to the safety plan.
''I think the FAA needs to have assurance that the proposed changes address the causes of the two incidents,'' Dr. Sadoway said. ''That means that we need to have certainty as to what caused those incidents.''
Otherwise, he said, ''we can make changes that sound like good changes, but if they fall short of addressing what caused those two incidents, they would be inadequate.''
On Wednesday, the FAA's Seattle office was completing its recommendation to approve Boeing's plan for the tests, which are needed to certify that its proposed fixes would work, officials said. The plan is still subject to approval by Michael P. Huerta, the head of the FAA, and Ray LaHood, the U.S. transportation secretary, who will be briefed on it over the next several days.
LaHood said in January that the planes ''won't fly until we're 1,000 percent sure they are safe to fly.'' Department officials said LaHood and Huerta had been kept informed of the details of the proposal as it was created, and they are expected to sign off on it.
Boeing executives said they thought they had identified the most likely ways in which the batteries could fail. They contend that the changes will minimize the probability that incidents will occur and will protect the plane and its passengers.
Under the plan, Boeing proposed adding insulation among the eight cells in the battery to minimize the risk of a short-circuit cascading through most or all of them. The company also proposed adding systems to monitor the temperature and activity in each cell. The batteries would be enclosed in sturdy steel boxes to contain any fire, and tubes would be created to vent hazardous gases outside the plane.
Aviation analysts said the plan would probably protect against the main potential problem that the safety board has identified, a short-circuit in one of the cells that could set off a chemical reaction that leads the battery to overheat.
But the approval of the changes is also a highly political process, and Huerta and LaHood are trying to balance safety concerns with the interest at Boeing and in the airline industry to get the planes flying again.
Perceptions among the public also loom large as Boeing tries to restore confidence in the 787s, known as Dreamliners for their use of new technologies that reduce fuel costs by 20 percent.
To that end, Boeing has referred to its proposal as a permanent fix for the problems. But Hans J. Weber, the president of Tecop International, an aviation consulting firm, said: ''You cannot call it a permanent fix until after you really understand what happened. So I'm distressed, quite frankly, that it provides a signal that they might not be working as diligently to still find out what caused the problems.''
Marc R. Birtel, a Boeing spokesman, said the company was calling the plan a permanent fix because it ''believes it is the right one.'' But, he added, ''if new information arises, we won't hesitate to improve the safety and reliability of our products.''
Boeing has delivered 50 787s to eight airlines, and officials said it could install new batteries in them quickly once a new design was approved. The company has much at stake with the plane, which is the first commercial jet to be built mostly with lightweight composite materials. Boeing has orders for 800 more of the planes.
The proposed changes are also, in effect, an acknowledgment by Boeing that its original plan for testing the batteries in 2007 was inadequate.
Hersman, the chairwoman of the safety board, said last month that Boeing's original tests had shown no indication that the batteries could erupt in flames and concluded that they were likely to emit smoke less than once in every 10 million flight hours.
Once the planes were placed in service, though, the batteries overheated and emitted smoke twice, and caused one fire, after about 50,000 hours of commercial flights.
Raymond L. Conner, the president of Boeing's commercial airplane division, said this week that industry and academic researchers had learned much since then about the batteries. Other company executives said Boeing would also incorporate what it learned from the two recent incidents into its new tests.
The laboratory work will include tests that set off fires in the batteries to see how the new containment and venting systems work, while the flight tests will check that the plane's vibrations do not bring the cells too close together.
Sadoway, of MIT, said the temperatures in the battery on the plane in Japan had shot high enough to melt aluminum connectors and ground wires, which could support the idea that an electrical surge had come from outside the battery.
He said Boeing might need to add a circuit-breaker outside the battery to prevent such surges or take a deeper look at how the plane's novel electrical system is working.
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