Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Boeing's Bad Battery News A Re-Occurring Nightmare

UPDATED February 20th

The Japan Transportation Safety Board  has rapid-fire found and diagnosed a surprise second battery problem on the All Nippon Airways Dreamliner that made an emergency landing on January 16th.  (The report in Japanese along with diagrams and photos can be found here.)

Yesterday it said two out of the 8 cells in the aft battery had "deformations or slight swelling of the stainless cases" based on scan images examined by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. 
The NTSB examines the JAL battery

Remember it was smoke in the forward battery in the  E&E bay that prompted pilots to divert to Takamatsu. Associated Press is reporting that improper wiring of the battery to the APU caused the overheating damage.  (Whack-a-Mole anyone?)

When, oh when, will Boeing executives wake up from the never-ending nightmare that is the Dreamliner? I am imagining them with their hands over their ears repeating loudly to themselves, "nah nah nah nah nah nah..." just to drown out the latest news.

Kazunori Ozawa speaks to Japan television

Over the weekend, my man in Tokyo, Takeo Aizawa, pointed me to a televised interview that aired in Japan with Kazunori Ozawa, formerly the product leader at Sony when the electronics company was creating the cobalt oxide formulation of lithium ion battery twenty years ago. 

In his interview Mr. Ozawa said he'd experienced a short-circuit fire when transporting batteries on a truck. He attributed the fire to the battery's vulnerability to vibration and wondered if this shortcoming could be relevant to problems with the battery in aviation.

It is worth noting that Mr. Ozawa has his own battery technology company now  producing a manganese-flavored lithium product he claims is less susceptible to over charging, over discharging or exploding. 

Who knows if Mr. Ozawa's thoughts, or the deformations found on ANA's APU battery are important to getting to the bottom of the problem? For sure we can say it's more bad news for the embattled Boeing and just days into the company's massive publicity refocusing campaign, complete with direct-to-you website with dazzling graphics and videos that speak reassuringly of Boeing's expertise and the wisdom of the company's selection of lithium ion to provide power to the Dreamliner. 

Graphic courtesy Matt Cawby
Meanwhile, the Dreamliners roll off the assembly lines in Charleston and Everett with nowhere to go but out on the tarmac, as I reported for Wednesday's New York Times and as Matt Cawby diagrammed on his website. (Also check out Dan Terdiman's Where's Waldo guide to the 50 Dreamliners in service.) 

So what do we have? Planes that cannot fly, batteries that cannot be relied on to work without huffin' and puffin' and an airplane manufacturer that is producing bad news, except when it is producing its own we-control-the-message news for its  website. 

Aviation Week's Guy Norris is reporting today that Boeing will be approaching the Federal Aviation Administration with a planned temporary fix for the battery problem to at least get the airplanes flying while a more permanent solution can be found. 

Dreamliners in Everett, photo courtesy Mary Kirby
Don't accuse me of being unduly harsh on Boeing. I'm a pussy cat compared to the report of analyst Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group. In two pages, Aboulafia explains he's been forced to re think his prior opinion that when it came to the competition between Boeing and Airbus, "Boeing looked more competitive." Now he's suggesting that Boeing investors are "getting spooked by a company that seems to lack a proactive approach for dealing with a serious crisis."

Where oh where will it end? Shucks, I can't say, but Aboulafia's predicting a six to nine month grounding. That's  182 to 273 sleepless nights.


Anonymous said...

NightmareLiner : Boeing has already lost the battle against the A-350. Thank you, Boeing management, for your 5 year long arrogance and complacency. Absolutely appalling.
Jerome. Francelely

Anonymous said...

Boeing will never admit that the Li-Ion battery decision was a mistake. Executives don't make mistakes. It's all the fault of those under them who made "mistakes of execution". Heads will roll farther down, but not at the top.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Well, the lithium ion battery issue is certainly interesting, but what about the issue of cabin fume events. This happens all the time and it's putting cabin crew and passengers at risk everyday!

Unknown said...

ChefNick said...

It boggles the mind that Boeing didn't have a solid Plan B stashed away. These problems MUST have come up during testing and development -- surely SOMEONE saw the writing on the wall?

If they did and just didn't speak up, Boeing has some serious management issues, at the very least. But if they DID speak up, why does Boeing seem to have no alternate strategy except to fix what is turning out to be unfixable? Even if they do somehow cobble together a fix -- a more protective housing in case of fire, blah blah blah -- something is bound to go wrong, and an already leery public is going to collectively declare "No way am I stepping onto one of THOSE." I know I would, and I've put in 1000s, maybe tens of thousands of passenger hours in my lifetime.

They should stop fiddling with this thing and immediately start figuring out ways to use NiCad or NiMH batteries instead. Every single day that goes by is one more nail in Boeing's coffin.

Remember good old McDonnell Douglas, Boeing.The days of Gentlemen's Handshakes are long, long over.

ChefNick said...

This from an NY Times article:

"Boeing officials say that even though the causes of the battery episodes have not been determined, they have identified the most likely ways in which the new lithium-ion batteries failed. They now want the F.A.A. to approve changes meant to virtually eliminate the odds of future cases and to protect the plane and its passengers if a problem does arise."

"Virtually eliminate?" That's like saying "We'll only let one in every 1,000 Dreamliners go down with all aboard."

" . . .protect the plane and its passengers if a problem does arise."

How about a very, VERY big parachute, guys?

ChefNick said...

From the same article:

"Investigators at the safety board said a battery that ignited on a 787 parked at Logan Airport in Boston in January had suffered thermal runaway, a chemical reaction that leads the battery to overact."

Hmm. I guess that's what you'd call a Madonna of a battery.