About Those 787 Problems

It has not been a good few weeks for the 787 program. There have been fires, fuel leaks, and more to make for a very eventful month, and not in a good way. So is this airplane doomed to disaster? No. It is just having teething problems, like every airplane before it. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t concerns to be had about what’s happened, especially electrical ones.

787 Battery

You don’t remember them years and years later, but pretty much every airplane has had its share of problems when it first gets introduced. How about the 747? Its inaugural on Pan Am was delayed for hours on end when it had an engine problem. (The early Pratt engines were nothing but trouble.) The only reason it was delayed a matter of hours and not more was because there was another aircraft that they could push into service.

But these teething problems pale in comparison to the airplane with the worst of all teething problems – the Comet. When the de Havilland Comet was introduced as the first viable commercial jet, it was a marvel. Unfortunately, the designers didn’t quite understand metal fatigue well enough. The repeated pressurization cycles exposed weak spots in the airframe that simply gave out. Airplanes started to drop out of the sky.

For the 747, it took some time but reliability became less of an issue and now its early problems are just a footnote. For the Comet, despite a major redesign, it was easily surpassed by the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 and the airplane, not its problems, became a footnote in history.

So what is happening with the 787? Are these normal teething problems or is it the end of the world? It will be much easier to answer that question in 20 years, but I have to assume that it’s likely to be the former.

The incidents we’ve seen so far have been covered widely by the media and it may very well scare travelers from booking on a 787 for awhile. But the problems we’ve seen so far have been far from the major disasters we saw with the Comet or even with the DC-10 (American flight 191). Even though the American 191 issue was maintenance-related, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) briefly grounded the airplane and the public became incredibly nervous. Still, the DC-10 went on to be quite successful.

With the 787, the incidents have been less dramatic so far. We’ve seen failed generators, brake problems, a fuel leak, and more. But if anything should be more troubling, it’s the electrical issues. There have been a few reports of improper wiring and other electrical issues. The JAL 787 that had a battery fire on the ground is possibly the most nerve-wracking.

After landing in Boston, a JAL 787 had a battery that powers the auxiliary power unit (APU) catch on fire. While the APU is primarily used on the ground, that doesn’t mean that the battery couldn’t catch fire in the air. It is a lithium ion battery, and that has long been known to pose a fire safety risk. For that reason, there were a ton of extra safety precautions taken with these batteries before they were allowed on the 787, but it didn’t take long for one to catch on fire. Just think what could have happened if this happened over the ocean.

Boeing says that had the fire happened in flight, it would have been contained within the compartment where it was located. That may be the case, but I don’t know anyone who would be comfortable having a fire onboard an aircraft while over the middle of the ocean. Lithium ion batteries are great because of their efficiency at providing energy but they are also less stable than other options. That has already been proven with this fire.

The good news is that these incidents have caught a lot of regulatory attention. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has, as always, initiated an investigation. Meanwhile, the FAA is doing a very thorough review of the electrical systems on the airplane. Japan’s regulatory agency is looking into it as well. When this is all done, there will undoubtedly be some changes to the airplane. Every aircraft goes through changes. If you look at the number of Airworthiness Directives issues by the feds, you would be amazed.

What’s the bottom line here? Well, there are definitely some concerns, that’s for sure. You might hear a lot of saber-rattling by the airlines. That is probably more about trying to get compensation from Boeing along with a quick fix to avoid reliability problems than it is lack of faith in the airplane’s future. And the regulatory agencies are now going to be looking VERY closely over the airplane to make sure it’s safe so that’s good.

In the end, we’re going to end up with a very safe airplane. But for now, there is at the very least, a strong concern about reliability. If travelers decide to book away from the 787 until that gets sorted out, it wouldn’t surprise me. I’ve had similar thoughts. But eventually, this will all get ironed out and all will be good. It’s just a matter of how long it will take to get there.

[Original battery/sign icons via Shutterstock]

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