Boeing Woes Balloon as Battery Fix Remains a Mystery

Published February 20, 2013

Would you be willing to fly on a newly developed jumbo airliner with battery technology that has been known to cause fires, whose exact cause is still unknown, but whose manufacturer has claimed to find a temporary “fix” that would allegedly contain –but not prevent – future flaming flights?

Boeing bets you would. Airbus bets you wouldn’t.

On Sunday the Seattle Times reported that Boeing might propose a plan as early as this week to get the troubled Dreamliner airborne again, after two incidents involving fires with the jet’s sizable lithium ion battery packs shut down all 50 of the units now in service. The rumored remedy doesn’t appear to be an actual repair of the volatile battery itself, but instead “includes a heavy-duty titanium or steel containment box around the battery cells” and high-pressure tubes to vent dangerous gases outside the fuselage in case of what engineers call “thermal runaway.” According to the newspaper’s sources, the goal is to “get the planes flying passengers again.”

This is worth repeating: If regulators approve, airlines will be able to fly passengers on planes because they think it is sufficient to “contain” a fire, not just to prevent one. So for those of you inexperienced fliers, as you book online, the future flights can either appear as “Dreamliner” or “787” – don’t say you weren’t alerted.

As for Airbus, officials are done messing with the lithium ion battery for their competitor – the A350 – to Boeing’s “green” machine. The Paris-based subsidiary of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co. announced late last week they would opt for nickel-cadmium battery systems instead. For the comfort of knowing the plane’s power sources are far less-likely to experience a thermal runaway event, Airbus says it will take the competitive “hit” against the Dreamliner by adding the weight equivalent of an adult male passenger. Small price to pay in order to keep the development process moving and produce a plane that passengers will not be afraid to board.

Meanwhile Boeing’s dilemma has become downright disturbing. Grounded over a month ago by the Federal Aviation Administration and its counterparts in Japan, India and Europe, investigators still are unable to identify the exact reasons for the problems with the Dreamliner’s battery. The final straws – after reports of numerous failed batteries during in the preceding months – were a battery pack fire on a Japan Air Lines 787 in Boston on Jan. 7, and reports of a burning smell on an All Nippon Airways flight caused an emergency landing in Japan on Jan. 16.

According to the Seattle Times report, because Boeing’s engineers and transportation investigators are still stumped, the company is left with no other alternative (other than dumping lithium ions altogether) than the “containment” plan. However, there is no guarantee the FAA and other national regulators would even approve that.

“We’re not there yet,” said one of the Times‘ anonymous government sources. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we’re still talking weeks before everyone is comfortable.”

Weeks? That is an extremely painful possibility (more like a “likelihood” or “probability”) for Boeing and its airline customers who bank on every vehicle in their fleet being airworthy. All Nippon – which just reportedthat it found “swelling” in a second lithium ion battery from the emergency landing last month – is reportedly losing $1.1 million per dayas a result of the Dreamliner’s dormancy, and at the end of January said it had already lost $15 million in revenue. Air India is estimated to be losing$3.3 million (U.S.) per month. Reuters says the grounding has cost the airlines (United is the only U.S. carrier with Dreamliners) “tens of millions of dollars” so far with no solution in sight.

The Seattle Times said – based upon interviews with government and Boeing sources – that even if the FAA approved the short-term “containment” approach, it would still take at least three months for Boeing to test the new design, which would hypothetically enable to get the 787 back flying passengers in May. But that is almost certainly unrealistic, especially if the government source’s need to talk for “weeks before everyone is comfortable” is accurate.

“This cannot drag out for six to nine months … from a financial standpoint. Think about nine months of airplanes just sitting there,” said a Times source in Everett, Wash., who they say knows Boeing’s problem-solving activities. “This is a gut-wrenching issue.”

A financial analyst cited by the Times estimated the cost to Boeing at over $25 million per month, and every dollar lost during the shutdown adds to the $15- to $20-million development costs for the Dreamliner. Boeing already has $21 million in 787 inventory with 800 more planes on order.

The astounding costs that are mounting might have been avoided had Boeing not employed a strategy that first took into consideration how much incentives, grants and tax breaks it could extract from state and federal governments, rather than construct for its customers a transport of the first order, built upon proven technologies.

As NLPC has reported inrecent weeks, instead Boeing has seemingly placed higher priorities on creating an environmentalist- and politician-approved “green” flying machine. The intervention of governments in the airline and transportation industries have rendered it about as far from free-market and free-trade competition as you can get without it actually being considered outright communism.

Remember the old admonition your parents would often deliver? Do things the right way and don’t try to take short cuts. Yet every time government – which thinks it knows what’s better for consumers environmentally and otherwise then they do themselves – holds up huge stacks of money to get business to change public behavior, more often than not the results are undesirable consequences thanks to the short cut detour away from meeting genuine market demand.

Boeing, with nearly $172 million spent on lobbying since 1998 on just about every public policy influenced by the U.S. government, has made the pursuit of profits via such short cuts an art form. It’s a long way from its 1916 founding in Seattle when William E. Boeing told a friend before launching his company, “We could build a better plane ourselves and build it faster.”

Now the legendary company, which relocated to Chicago in 2001 because it sought $63 million in public money enticements to move its headquarters, is all about government “gimmes.” Boeing is stuck with what increasingly looks like a lemon and is reticent to swallow hard and make tough decisions about the systems that totally power its planes.

One certainty is that no flying consumer in his right mind would get on a 787 any time soon, despite what Boeing, the government and the media might say to assuage concerns. “We don’t know what caused it” combined with “we’ve got it contained if it happens again” doesn’t cut it.

Boeing has already lost millions of dollars, and possibly billions. Worse, it may be on the verge of totally losing the public’s trust, if it hasn’t already.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes, an aggregator of North Carolina news.

[First published at the National Legal and Policy Center.]