Public battering

In the span of only a few days, Boeing and the entire aerospace industry saw what happens when ground-breaking technology and safety fears collide on the modern public stage. Nearly as fast as white, wispy smoke issuing from the underbelly of a Japan Airlines 787 on the ground in Boston, this news was broadcast in varying tones of alarm around the world: a lithium-ion battery supplying energy to the auxiliary power unit had exploded on the ground, igniting a fire nearby that was extinguished after a firefighter was injured.

Few other relevant facts are available while the incident remains under investigation by US and Japanese safety teams, but that information was enough to send Boeing’s share price plummeting by almost 6% in the following 48h. In the absence of hard facts, investors are likely to be worried that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will recommend design changes that may be costly to Boeing’s bottom-line in the short term and damaging to 787 order backlog in the long term.

The battery fire came only weeks after the 787 was knocked for electrical system malfunctions now known to be traced to a faulty batch of circuit boards, and five months after an engine failure now traced to a poorly chosen anti-corrosion treatment on the fan mid-shaft.

The 787 entered service 15 months ago; 50 have been delivered to operators. Until now, known examples of cancelled flights and delayed deliveries caused by technical glitches were easily written off by most investors and the public as the normal teething issues they were. However, an onboard fire caused by a battery powered by lithium ions is not so easily brushed aside. It may be found that the fault is not one of design but of execution in the manufacturing or in maintenance of the battery, as was discovered with the faulty circuit boards and engine coating. But Boeing may not get off so easily even then. The measures designed to prevent the ignition of a fire, even in the event of errors by execution, must again be scrutinised. It is now Boeing’s task to prove to the NTSB and the US Federal Aviation Administration how such a fire can never happen again.

That is the short-term problem. The long-term one is revealed in the fluctuations of Boeing’s stock price. The airworthiness of the 787 was certificated to the highest standards for safety of nearly any industry. But if investors – and, indeed, the public – lose faith in the certification process, airframers may be unwilling to make similar technical gambles when introducing new aircraft, even if the technology promises clear benefits.

(This first appeared as the main leading article in 15-21 January 2013 Flight International)

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