ANALYSIS: Grounding order moves 787 into uncharted territory

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A grounding order by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) moves the Boeing 787 programme into territory uncharted for a modern airliner as long as a recently discovered "battery fire risk" remains unsolved.

The order by the FAA effectively grounds six 787s operated by United Airlines and aligns the US regulator with two Japanese airlines - All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines - that ceased 787 operations earlier on 15 January. But the action also forces five other airlines operating the 787 to reconsider the aircraft's safety for an undetermined period.

Boeing must demonstrate that it has eliminated any risk of a battery-ignited fire before the grounding will be lifted. Jim McNerney, Boeing's chief executive, says the entire resources of the company will be put at the disposal of the effort to discover the source of the battery fire risk and to correct it.

Engineering resources, meanwhile, could be diverted from other strategic efforts in 2013, such as doubling the 787's monthly production rate, completing the assembly and launch flight testing of the 290-seat 787-9 and launching the potential 320-seat 787-10.

The grounding may not have an immediate impact on aircraft valuations, as no market exists for second-hand 787-8s yet, with only 51 of the type delivered.

But the public and regulatory safety concerns growing around the programme could make it harder for some airlines and lessors to obtain financing, says Les Weal, head of valuations for the Flightglobal Ascend consultancy.

"If you were asked to finance one today, you may have to pass on the opportunity," says Weal, explaining that such financiers have no shortage of requests bearing less risk than the 787. In the hours leading up to the FAA grounding order, Flightglobal Ascend still assigned a $110 million valuation for a new 787-8 built in 2013.

On top of the programme's financial concerns, Boeing may also need to restore confidence in the 787's entire electrical architecture. It was designed as a technological leap forward, reducing fuel consumption by several percentage points, and using electricity to replace parasitic bleed-air to power onboard systems and cabin pressurisation.

But the power system with nearly 1.5MW (2,010hp) of capacity has been a source of constant headaches barely 15 months into service. A suspected batch of poorly-built circuit boards are likely to have caused a series of glitches on power distribution panels of several aircraft in December 2012, forcing United and Qatar Airways to briefly ground some aircraft to perform repairs.

Far more worrisome, however, are the newly-realised risks of fire posed by the two lithium-ion polymer batteries, a powerful chemistry is described as a "first" in commercial aviation on the 787. Boeing selected a lithium-ion-based battery proposed by electrical power conversion system supplier Thales, which packaged an industrial-grade battery designed by Japanese firm GS Yuasa and a battery charger unit made by Securaplane, based in Tucson, Arizona.

Industry and government regulators were aware of the risks of potential safety hazards posed by battery chemistries based on lithium-ion.

In 2006, Securaplane's administration building "burned to the ground" because of a botched laboratory test involving a GS Yuasa battery designed for the 787. In 2007, the FAA imposed a set of special conditions for Boeing to prove the safety of lithium-ion batteries before the agency would grant airworthiness certification for the new aircraft.

The certification tests appeared to show that Boeing had passed the FAA's test. The lithium-ion battery allowed Boeing to start the auxiliary power unit with a device half the size of comparable nickel-cadmium or lead acid batteries used in previous aircraft designs.

Last week, Michael Sinnett, the 787's chief project engineer, said lithium-ion is not the only acceptable solution, but it was still the best option for the 787.

Any future design must show that the battery is safe, even if something fails and heat builds up to dangerous levels, says Hans Weber, head of the Tecom aviation consultancy.

Such a design must ensure that a fire is contained and is quickly extinguished by being deprived of oxygen, he says. Moreover, most, if not all, of the smoke generated by the flames must be vented outboard, rather than be allowed to circulate inside the pressurised cabin, he says.

Speaking hours before the FAA imposed by the grounding order, Weber said the public and regulatory response to the ANA and JAL battery incidents had been surprising.

"It's been driven by emotion, which is understandable," he says. "The emotion generated by a fire on board is high. That's one of the scariest things to contemplate."

  • Check out our timeline of Boeing 787 incidents