Boeing 787 Woes: Power, Money, Aviation and Government
The intersection of these mighty forces makes for difficult decisions: How is the FAA faring on this one?
By Robert Goyer / Published: Jan 23, 2013
What’s wrong with the Boeing 787, which has suffered the unthinkable, unexplained battery fires in places that are inaccessible in flight to the crew? One such battery fire caused an All Nippon Airways 787 to make a forced landing last week. The domestic flight, bound for Tokyo from Southern Japan, made an emergency landing short of the intended destination after the pilots became aware of the battery problems and the smell of fire entered the cabin. The airplane was quickly evacuated using the emergency slides.
The initial theory was that the lithium battery caught fire due to being overcharged, but investigators in Japan now say this did not happen. This leaves the cause of the fire, which was contained within the metal battery case, a mystery. Which is not ideal. Unexplained fires in airliners meant to carry hundreds of people — it’s a bad thing.
All 50 Dreamliners that Boeing has delivered are currently grounded. This is a smart move, but one that Boeing has reportedly complained about privately to regulators, calling the grounding an overreaction. This is an understandable reaction but a wholly inappropriate one. Short of a wing falling off, there’s no more dangerous malfunction than a fire in flight, and the only course of action is a fleet-wide grounding until a cause is found, understood and cured.
|This photo shows the battery that caught fire on
the ANA flight next to a normal, undamaged battery. (In the aircraft photograph, from the Japan Transport Safety Board, captions in Japanese have been removed from the image.)
The woes of the Boeing 787 are remarkably complex but not unprecedented. There are a number of other cases of aircraft malfunctioning — some of which resulted in great loss of life — with no ready explanation. The world’s first jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet, is a case in point. The model entered service in 1952 and within a couple of years three of them had come apart in mid-flight, resulting in the deaths of nearly 100 people in three separate accidents.
The pressure was on the British government to find the problem, find the cause, and fix it, and it initially failed to do so, putting the Comet back into service after the first crash only to have two more crashes. After grounding the entire fleet, the cause was found, the cure was made (a redesign of the pressure vessel) and the airplane returned to service with no further accidents as a result of metal fatigue.
We don’t know how long it will take for investigators and the manufacturer to find the cause of the battery problems with the 787, but however long it takes is how long it takes. So far there have been no lives lost, and that, despite the many, many millions of dollars this is costing Boeing, is the only measuring stick that matters here.
As far as the FAA is concerned, we applaud the decision to support the grounding of the fleet. Jobs, money, reputations and balance of power in the international economy are all factors at play when a multi-billion-dollar program hits a major speed bump like this, but none of them matter. The only consideration needs to be the safety of the flying public. The FAA is getting this one right.