The International Herald Tribune
March 11, 2013
With the technologically advanced 787, Boeing offered airlines big fuel savings and more comfort for passengers. It also promised something else: the ability to reach just about any airport on the globe without having to stop.
Boeing designed the jet to fly five and a half hours from the nearest airport at any point on its routes, a feature that would allow extended flights over water or deserted regions like the North Pole. That held tremendous appeal for airlines, which often must stay within three hours of emergency landing spots, and Boeing estimated that 450 new routes would be created.
But Boeing is struggling to get past the 787's recent smoke and fire episodes with its lithium-ion batteries.
The incidents have led to the grounding of all 50 planes delivered so far. And with investigators in the United States and Japan still looking for the cause of those problems, it could be months before regulators feel confident enough about Boeing's redesign of the batteries to approve extending 787 flights to ultralong distances from the jetliner's current three-hour limit.
That could dilute its appeal to some airlines and further raise the costs of the program for Boeing, which already was unlikely to make a profit on any 787s for at least two years. The company could lose orders and have to pay penalties to carriers if the 787 fails to meet its performance targets.
''It is crucially important that the powers that be get convinced that Boeing can contain and exhaust a fire, and that the fix really worked,'' said Hans J. Weber, the president of Tecop International, an aviation consulting firm.
He said that even after the jets started flying again, Boeing and the airlines would have to monitor activity inside the batteries for tens of thousands of flight hours before experts would feel sure enough that the fixes would prevent a fire or that the jet's range could be safely expanded.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials said it was premature to speculate about what they might decide about the plane's range. Boeing said Friday that it had not changed its goal of winning approval for the longer flights.
The 787 fleet was grounded in January after the battery in one jet ignited in Boston and another battery began smoldering on a flight in Japan.
Boeing and other companies that rely on the lithium-ion batteries, including manufacturers of hybrid cars, worry about public perceptions of the batteries and want to get the planes back up in the air as soon as possible. The FAA is expected to approve a plan this week to start testing the possible fixes.
Mr. Weber said that several studies had suggested that jetliners have an average of 18 to 20 minutes to land if a fire erupts without special containment in a cargo or equipment bay. And it could take 20 minutes more to get all the passengers and crew members off the plane, he said.
As a result, George W. Hamlin, an aviation consultant, said he believed that to justify even flying as much as three hours from the nearest airport, Boeing would have to demonstrate that its new battery case could contain a fire for at least 180 minutes. Otherwise, he said, the plane's appeal could diminish.
Having a fire in a plane is a situation all pilots dread. (They are trained to find the nearest landing spot.) But containing a potential fire could be an acceptable answer for the FAA, Weber and Hamlin said.
The agency already has many requirements to offset other safety concerns on planes.
For instance, Weber said, the FAA accepts the risk of the failure of one engine in flight by requiring that any twin-engine jet can fly on the remaining one.
And while the current rule that 787s must stay within three hours of airports is sufficient for most North American and trans-Atlantic flights and even many flights across the Pacific Ocean, several Middle Eastern, Australian and Asian airlines are counting on the extension to gain more flexibility in their routes and maximize the fuel savings from the plane.
''The part of the raison d'ętre in the design of the 787 is being able to connect virtually anywhere,” Hamlin said.
The extended flying standard, known as Etops, originally stood for extended twin-engine operations and established a higher level of maintenance and operational reliability for twin-engine planes flying over the Atlantic Ocean.
Today, the standard applies to all types of planes, regardless of the number of engines. Boeing's 777s are the only twin-engine planes approved to fly to the five-and-a-half-hour standard, and Boeing's rival, Airbus, plans to seek approval for 5 hours and 50 minutes for its A350 XWB, which will compete with both the 777s and the 787s.
The extended-range certification also requires a significant investment from airlines, which must demonstrate impeccable maintenance and operating reliability.
''It's the platinum standard for airlines,'' said Robert W. Mann, an aviation consultant.
Boeing originally sought to make the 787s the first jets to be certified to the five-and-a-half-hour standard right from their creation. But software problems with the plane's low-fuel gauge during the early testing phase delayed those plans.
Once the plane entered service, a series of episodes with the 787's sophisticated electrical systems, in addition to the battery cases, added to the FAA's doubts over the 787's basic reliability, analysts said.
''The issue here is that we have intermittent problems with the electrical systems that are happening at an unnerving frequency,'' Mann said. ''And all this suggests to me huge reliability issues. And that is certainly not something you want when you're five hours from the nearest airport over the North Pole or the South Pacific somewhere.''
Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines and Qatar Airways are among the carriers interested in the longer distances.
''Resistance on Etops would be fatal for the 787 for long-haul flights over water, which is where it shines and makes money for operators,'' Weber said. ''The more restriction the FAA puts on the airplane, the less useful it will be.''
Boeing has estimated that the 787 cuts fuel costs 20% compared with costs for other planes, and that the cost advantage increases the farther it flies. Now, many of the longer-range routes are flown by planes, like the Boeing 747, that have more than two engines.
Adding to the uncertainty is that the National Transportation Safety Board announced Thursday that it would hold a public forum in mid-April to explore the safety of lithium-ion batteries in planes and possibly hybrid cars. It also plans a hearing in late April on the failures in the earlier certification of the 787 batteries.
The hearings could create complications for Boeing if they occur before the FAA approves a resumption of flights or any findings add to the questions about extending the plane's range.
''We find ourselves in a place that is new and challenging for the aviation community - simultaneous international investigations, a fleet grounding and the battery redesign and certification process taking place concurrently,'' Deborah A.P. Hersman, the chairwoman of the safety board, said in an interview Friday.
But, she said, the intensity also ''provides a lot of opportunity to figure out what happened here and how to make things safer.''
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