The Dreamliner has been a nightmare for Boeing since its introduction, mostly because of its choice of lighter lithium-ion batteries, the same kind that power your cell phone and laptop. Until now, they have not been used in large-scale industrial applications.
In the 90 days that Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner has been back in the skies , the aircraft has had flights canceled or been forced to make emergency landings at least seven different times because of warning failures and overheating. Just last month, a parked Ethiopian Airlines Dreamliner in London caught fire from a still undetermined electrical cause.
At a recent hearing of the House Aviation subcommittee, Rep. Rick Larsen, who represents the Washington state facility where the Dreamliner is assembled, said Boeing had “pushed the envelope” with the Dreamliner.
That’s putting it mildly.
In just one year and with only 50 Dreamliners in use, between 100 to 150 of the Dreamliner’s batteries failed and were returned to their Japanese manufacturer as defective, The Seattle Times has reported.
That’s in addition to the two highly-publicized Dreamliner battery fires over 10 days in January, which led the FAA to ground the entire Dreamliner fleet — the first time it had done so for a large commercial aircraft since 1979.
At the time, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood assured passengers that the Dreamliner would not return to the skies “until we’re 1,000% sure they are safe to fly.”
It took Washington less than 120 days to reach LaHood’s Biblical level of certitude.
Washington based its decision on an engineering review that was mostly performed by Boeing itself. In the Orwellian language of Washington, the FAA calls the process “self-certification,” obscuring the dangerously close relationship between Boeing and the FAA.
The FAA cleared the Dreamliner for takeoff without completing its own top-to-bottom review of the aircraft’s design, and even before the National Transportation Safety Board was able to find out what caused the battery fires in the first place.
Meanwhile, an FAA blue-ribbon panel of industry experts has issued new safety standards for lithium-ion batteries in commercial aircraft, but they won’t be applied to the Dreamliner. The government’s aviation safety chief, Peggy Gilligan, explained to the subcommittee that “it’s very difficult to go back and cause an existing product to be retested in accordance with some new standard.”
Boeing’s persistent problems with its lithium-ion batteries have caused its European competitor, Airbus, to announce that it will reject their use altogether for its new counterpart, the A350.
Concerned Japanese pilots, citing 30 separate safety concerns with the Dreamliner’s batteries, electrical and warning systems, have appealed to Boeing to build an additional cockpit warning to give pilots more substantive alerts if the batteries begin to overheat. Those concerns too, have fallen on deaf ears.
Instead, Boeing’s “fix” consists of additional insulation, a steel box to contain whatever fires might break out, and a system to vent the fumes. This, as Aviation subcommittee chair Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) assured passengers, was the result of “more than 200,000 engineering hours” and testing that the FAA’s Gilligan repeatedly called “robust.”
The Aviation subcommittee, flush with Boeing campaign cash, didn’t hear about the 100 battery failures or the repeated Dreamliner diversions, cancellations, and emergency landings.
Neither did it listen to flight crews, passenger groups or independent battery experts like Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory professor Elton Cairns, who says he is “shocked” by Boeing’s use of the batteries; according to Dr. Cairns, the cells are “crammed too closely together and feature an internal chemistry that’s far too volatile.”
In May, FlyersRights.org and the Aviation Consumer Action Project formally petitioned the FAA to at least limit Boeing 787 flights until its safety problems are resolved, and considering the alarming number of safety incidents, the FAA should wait no longer.
If Boeing wants to protect passengers — not to mention its reputation as the world leader in aviation – it should replace the fire-prone, Japanese-made lithium-ion batteries before tragedy strikes.
The author, Paul Hudson, is President of FlyersRights.org, America’s largest airline passenger organization, and longtime member of the FAA’s main safety advisory group, the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee.