MIAMI — One year ago today the Boeing 787 was making headlines around the world. The airplane, touted as the future of aviation, was instead subjected to remain on the ground by governmental order until further notice. After on-board lithium-ion batteries caught fire for unexplained reasons twice in eight days, the Dreamliner did not exactly leave officials much choice. And so it was that fifty of the aircraft were condemned to sit idle in airports around the world as Boeing and federal investigators tried to piece together what happened, and how to stop it from happening again.
Despite thousands of man-hours spent exhaustively working the issue, no one has yet been able to figure out what caused the batteries to go alight in the first place. Consequently, with the success of an entire program on the hook, Boeing managed to convince the FAA that while the events still couldn’t be explained, they could be contained.
Enter ‘the fix’. The fix, which aimed to contain, though not stop, a battery failure incorporated a number of changes. It increased spacing between each of the eight internal lithium-ion cells, added ceramic heat shields between each cell, and enclose the entire battery in a stainless steel box complete with plumbing to vent any exhaust. The FAA signed off on it after testing, the system was added to existing aircraft, and the Dreamliner returned to service after being sidelined for over three months. Ethiopian was the first to resume service, in late April. Deliveries resumed in May, and climbed to a respectable 65 by year’s end.
Like a bad hangover, however, the headache continued well past the airplane’s April 2013 recertification. The problems the airplane has faced since have been well documented: In July an Ethiopian Dreamliner caught fire in London, apparently due to a defective emergency locator beacon in the rear of the airplane.
LOT Polish and Norwegian have faced substantial challenges with the airplane as well as a litany of smaller mechanical issues pushed the airplanes reliability into the tank. Both carriers bet the farm on the 787 for their long-haul operations, only to watch the dream turn into a nightmare.
LOT, which sold off its 767 fleet after taking its first 787s, was pushed over the financial brink during the grounding. It spent months (as did Qatar, United, and other 787 operators) chasing down Boeing to recoup losses. Later in 2013 the carriers 787s had a string of incidents that forced the airplanes out of service. They reached an agreement in December.
Norwegian had the good fortune of not having had a Dreamliner at the time of the grounding, but quickly found its new delivery to be defective. The carrier faced mechanical issue after issue which seemingly kept its fleet on the ground more frequently than in the air. Norwegian frequently took its case public, complaining loudly and often to the media about its dissatisfaction with the airplane and the manner in which Boeing handled it. Ultimately the carrier forced Boeing Commercial CEO Ray Conner to the region to do some explaining.
Yet Norwegian still liked the airplane enough to commit to buying two more. The latter decision reflects what appears to be the experience of most of the other carriers these days. Sixteen airlines currently operate the airplane, flying around 200 flights per day around the world. Since the grounding British Airways, China Southern, Hainan, Norwegian, Royal Brunei, TUI Travel, and Qantas (jetstar) have all welcomed the airplane to their fleets. And while several have faced on again, off again issues none seem to have reached the levels of LOT or Norwegian.
Each deploys the airplane differently, leaning to different degrees toward a replacement or experiment strategy (or a mix of both). Replacement carriers generally utilize the airplane, predictably, to replace existing aircraft. For example British Airways and LOT Polish have, thus far, used the airplane to primarily replace aging Boeing 767 aircraft. Experimenting carriers tend to use the aircraft to mix things up and try new things, Norwegian’s use of the plane to start-up its LCC-style long-haul service is the classic example.
Others fit a hybrid approach, like United. The carrier is deploying the aircraft on tried and true routes, such as LA to Tokyo, but is also using it to experiment with fresh new service such as San Francisco to Chengdu, China and Denver-Tokyo.
The airplane took another big step away from the problems of the winter of 2013 when, in mid-September, a stretch variant known as the -9 took to the skies for the first time over Seattle. The airplane’s test program has hummed along nicely ever since, logging in nearly 300 hours by the turn of the year. It also completed initial testing in mid-December, enabling the three aircraft in the test program to progress on to FAA certification testing. The company says the first airplane is on track to be delivered to Air New Zealand in the summer of 2014.
In fact the worst seemed to be in the rear-view mirror for the airplane, with most incidents reduced instead to typical entry-into-service teething issues. That is until Monday of this week, when a JAL 787-8 battery suffered an incident. The battery appears to have suffered a single-cell meltdown that triggered ‘the fix’s’ built-in safety release components. The battery vented smoke and a small amount of liquid. Boeing quickly touted that the fix “worked as designed”, thus preventing disaster.
As a full year passes since the grounding it appears we are no closer to learning (and thus addressing) what exactly caused(s) the incidents. The NTSB recently announced it would have a final report on the initial battery failure in Boston by the fall of 2014. So far the agency has not released any information that suggests it knows what has prompted the failures to begin with. Boeing meanwhile, seems content to let ‘the fix’ be the end of the battery saga.
While the incident may have validated ‘the fix’ and rendered the airplane perfectly safe, it still does not lend the aircraft to good optics, or economics. An airplane that occasionally catches fire, even if it can put itself out, isn’t going to reassure a skittish public (though most will probably forget). And airlines certainly won’t look kindly on an airplane with a known maintenance issue that threatens to take the airplane out of service on every occasion. It ought to give a leg up to competitor Airbus A350, which, seeing the Dreamliner’s battery woes, opted to drop lithium-ion in favor of traditional nickel-cadmium batterys.
Still, airlines gobbled up the airplane before this incident, apparently undaunted by problems that continued to beset the aircraft. A total of 182 were ordered through the year, though most were for the -9 version and newly launched -10 versions. Even after this latest incident, both have ‘the fix’ incorporated and no has since talked about orders cancellation publicly (though another series of incidents like last year could change that). Still, it appears the battery woes are becoming a grudgingly accepted price to be paid for operating the Dreamliner.