The 787, known as the Dreamliner, is Boeing’s newest jet, and the company is counting heavily on its success. But since its launch after delays of more than three years, the plane has been plagued by a series of problems including a battery fire and fuel leaks.
U.S. officials and a Boeing engineer are due in Japan today to assist with an investigation into the All Nippon Airways 787 that made an emergency landing Wednesday at Takamatsu airport. The plane landed after a cockpit message showed battery problems and a burning smell was detected in the cockpit and cabin.
The battery was swollen from overheating, a safety official said Thursday, as India joined the U.S. and Japan in grounding the technologically advanced aircraft because of fire risk.
Air India’s decision to ground its fleet of six Boeing 787s means that some 36 of the 50 jets in use around the world are now out of action. Japan’s ANA, which has 17 of the 787s, and Japan Airlines, which has seven, voluntarily halted flights Wednesday after the emergency landing.
In Washington, the Federal Aviation Administration also required U.S. carriers to stop flying 787s until the batteries are demonstrated to be safe.
So far, no one has suggested that the plane’s fundamental design can’t be fixed. But it’s unclear how much will need to be changed.
The remedy could range from relatively quick-and-easy improvements to more extensive changes that could delay deliveries just as Boeing is trying to speed production up from five planes per month to 10.
The 787 is the first plane to make extensive use of lithium-ion batteries, which have been the focus of concerns in the past for their potential to catch fire. The FAA issued a special rule for their use in the 787. The plane has two batteries — the main one near the front and a second one in the rear.
Boeing and the airlines will need to move quickly to determine whether the problem is a flaw in the batteries themselves, in the plane’s wiring or in some other area that’s fundamental to the plane’s electrical system.
Boeing has booked orders for more than 800 of the planes from airlines around the world attracted by its increased fuel efficiency.
The jet’s lightweight design makes it more of a fuel-sipper, and it’s so lightweight in part because it uses electricity to do things that other airplanes do with hot air vented through internal ducts. So a 787 with electrical problems is like a minivan that won’t haul kids. It goes to the heart of what the thing was built to do.
Mike Sinnett, chief engineer on the 787, said last week that the plane’s batteries have operated through a combined 1.3 million hours and never had an internal fault. He said they were built with multiple protections to ensure that failures “don’t put the airplane at risk."
The lithium-ion design was chosen because it’s the only type of battery that can take a large charge in a short amount of time.