No one knows yet what’s causing electrical problems on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner jets. But just days after the global fleet was grounded by aviation officials and investigators began probing the jet’s high-tech electrical system, one thing is becoming clear: The fix isn’t likely to be simple, and the Dreamliner could be on the ground for a long time.
The 787′s troubles began with an incident in Boston on January 7, when a battery on an empty jet caught fire. On January 11, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration ordered a review of the 787’s critical systems. But on January 16 another Dreamliner was forced to make an emergency landing in Japan after on-board alarms indicated smoke in an electrical compartment, and passengers reported a burning smell in the cabin. As a result, the FAA ordered all operators of U.S.-registered Boeing 787 to cease operations. International aviation authorities followed suit, and by January 17th, the worldwide fleet of had been grounded.
It didn’t take long for investigators to discover the root of the problem: The high-tech Dreamliner uses lithium-ion batteries –the same kind you might find in your laptop or cell phone– and electric motors instead of traditional hydraulic controls. Battery-based systems are smaller and lighter, and were supposed to make the Dreamliner far more fuel efficient. But in the few cases under investigation, the batteries heated up and caught on fire. So investigators tried to figure out why.
The best-case scenario for Boeing and its airline clients was that the batteries were simply over-charged, making the problem user error, as opposed to some deeper flaw in the Dreamliner’s design. But on Sunday the National Transportation Safety Board completed its examination of flight recorder data from the jet that caught fire in Boston, and determined that the affected battery did not exceed its designed voltage.
Now investigators at the NTSA, the FAA and their international counterparts are widening their focus to examine the entire auxiliary power unit –and that’s where Boeing starts to have a problem. In addition to its novel electrical design, the Dreamliner pioneered new levels of subcontracted manufacturing: While each 787 was assembled at Boeing’s plant in Everett, Washington, more than 70% of the jets’ individual components were outsourced to some 900 subcontractors all over the world.
By outsourcing construction of the Dreamliner’s systems, Boeing reduced the complexity and cost of manufacturing the new jets. But they also increased the complexity of tracking down problems; the auxiliary power unit alone contains parts from Japan’s GS Yuasa Corporation, France’s Thales Group and North Carolina-based UTC Aerospace Systems, a subsidiary of Connecticut’s United Technologies.
Investigators will have to deal with a complicated network of global interests, experts and technologies just to figure out how the Dreamliners’ power system was supposed to work in the first place, much less how it ended up broken. It’s not the sort of problem you can unravel in just a couple of weeks.
Further complicating the problem: The different international aviation authorities involved in the investigation already seem to be taking different approaches. Japanese officials seem focused on GS Yuasa’s batteries, while the FAA and NTSB seem to be more interested in UTC’s electrical controllers.
At this point, the best-case scenario for Boeing is probably for investigators to decide that the affected Dreamliners simply had bad batteries; If that happens, the batteries can simply be replaced, and the fleet can be returned to flight.
The worst case scenario: Investigators decide that the use of lithium ion batteries is inherently flawed, and Boeing has to to totally redesign the jet’s electrical system and deploy major fixes across the fleet.
Either way, it could be a long time before anyone knows what went wrong, how to fix it, and Boeing manages to roll out the repairs to the fifty Dreamliners on the ground worldwide.
The longer the Dreamliner is grounded, the bigger this problem gets. Right now United Airlines is the only US carrier that actually has 787s in its fleet, so it wasn’t difficult to swap out the affected jets. But the company has only taken possession of six of the fifty Dreamliners it ordered. Meanwhile, American Airlines is waiting for 42 Dreamliners and Delta Air Lines for 18; overall, Boeing has delivered only 5o of more than 800 Dreamliners ordered to date.
That means if the investigation drags on, airlines around the world are going to start hurting for their new Boeing aircraft. And if the problem does finally turn out to be a fundamental issue with lithium-ion batteries, other manufacturers will start to have problems, too: Airbus uses similar batteries on their A380 superjumbo jet.
So far, investors are keeping their fingers crossed. Shares of Boeing stock fell just 1.17% on Monday, and are down only 1.59% for the month to date.