Boeing 787 battery fix to be largely resolved by mid-May

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Boeing's top executive declared on 24 April that the battery problem which has grounded the 787 fleet for three months will be largely resolved by mid-May, but he still seems uncertain how the effort to resolve the crisis should be characterised.

When a financial analyst questioned the complexity of the battery kit installation, Boeing chairman, president and chief executive James McNerney all but dismissed the concern. "This is not a big one," he says. It also isn't "rocket science" and "not a long pole in any tent", he adds.

That may seem overly casual terms to describe a solution Boeing says has consumed more than 200,000 labour hours during a three-month period, an effort equivalent to the amount of time the US Federal Aviation Administration says its staff devoted to the entire, seven-year certification process of the 787.

But McNerney may have a point. If the fix is as "straightforward" and "permanent" as Boeing has insisted, the grounding and delivery suspension imposed by a pair of lithium-ion battery overheating incidents in January will swiftly fade into an embarrassing, but relatively painless, footnote in the programme's history.

The path to recovering the 787's reputation is already under way. Pre-deployed teams of Boeing mechanics have already installed strategically located new battery kits on 10 delivered aircraft and nine 787s that have rolled off the production line since mid-January.

Boeing has also never produced 787s faster, having initiated a rate increase to seven per month recently. That is scheduled to climb to 10 per month by the end of the year, and could even grow beyond that.

Moreover, Boeing has so far survived the battery episode apparently without losing a single 787 order or customer, nor with any great movement to its share price. Although not contractually obligated to compensate airlines for schedule disruptions and delivery delays caused by the groundings, McNerney says Boeing will use a "variety of ways" to smooth things over with airlines.

The overall impact on the 787's bottom line has not been disclosed but is "minimal", says Boeing chief financial officer Greg Hayes. Boeing actually reduced research and development spending in the first quarter despite factoring in the total estimated costs of the 787 battery redesign effort, Hayes says. The overall cost will be added to the 787 accounting block of 1,100 aircraft, yielding only a tiny increase in the aircraft's unit costs.

In fact, Boeing still thinks it can accelerate the break-even point on a per-unit basis for the 787 programme, Hayes says, meaning it could occur within two years.

Meanwhile, Boeing is also moving forward on two new development programmes that could quickly move conversation away from the 787's battery woes. With the Paris air show looming in June, McNerney says the launch of the double-stretch 787-10X could happen soon. The re-winged and re-engined 777X could also be launched by the end of the year, he adds.

However, the lessons of the 787 grounding could still resonate as Boeing moves forward on new programmes. Introducing lithium-ion batteries, among the least heralded of the 787's innovations in the use of electrical power and composite structure, proved far more costly and complicated than Boeing ever envisioned.

The response to the battery grounding, if anything, highlights the company's strategic shift during the past year to a less aggressive approach. Only 12 months ago, Boeing was still actively considering unveiling the 737 Max.

McNerney emphasises the company now seeks to "harvest" the technologies pioneered on the 787 programme for decades to come.

On the 787-10X, 777X and 737 Max, McNerney says, "there is not a lot of invention".

The "bleeding-edge" investments made on the 787 during the past decade can be ported over into new derivatives under development in this decade, he says, allowing sharp increases in capability at a fraction of the cost of a new aircraft programme.

The trade-off is a familiar one for Boeing. After delivering the 777 in 1995, the company focused on derivatives for nearly a decade until it launched another all-new aircraft with the 787. Company executives have blamed many of the supply-chain and design errors that plagued the 787 on the failure to follow-up on the 777 while the lessons were still fresh.

It is an issue even McNerney acknowledges is a risk for his successors, although he thinks Boeing's invention mode could be on pause for much longer than a decade this time.

"I think we may be in an era where we can absorb somewhat less risk and still deliver a lot of performance," he says.

"Thirty years from now, will there be some new technology that we'll all wrestle with? Probably. Will there be enough people in Boeing that are here today that will remember the lessons learned from the 787? I hope so. I'm old. I'll be on a beach somewhere then."

Meanwhile, Boeing and the FAA have concluded that a flying 787 was in no danger of a catastrophic fire in January despite an overheating main battery that prompted the flightcrew to perform an emergency landing.

FAA air transport certification manager Ali Bahrami and Boeing vice-president and 787 chief project engineer Michael Sinnett agreed at a 23 April fact-finding hearing that the All Nippon Airways flight was never at risk of greater damage following the battery malfunction.

"It appears that the aircraft was not put in any danger," Bahrami told the hearing hosted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Sinnett was then asked by an NTSB official if that was his position as well. "Yes," he replied, "it is."

The statements revealed a continued division between the NTSB on one side and Boeing and the FAA on the other over the seriousness of the 787 battery incidents in January, even as the fleet has been cleared to return to service despite the absence of a root cause.

Sinnett was careful to say that an overheating battery caused by a short-circuit is an issue Boeing takes "very seriously".

Bahrami, meanwhile, concedes that the FAA was more concerned about the frequency of the two failures less than 10 days apart. That "surprised" the FAA staff who had approved Boeing's recommendation to certificate the aircraft as airworthy only 15 months before the battery incidents.

At the same time, both officials said there was no evidence to suggest the aircraft was at risk of catastrophic damage. In the case of the ANA incident, no flames or smoke were reported and thermal damage was limited to the immediate area around the battery box.

The FAA and Boeing also downplayed the incident on 7 January involving a parked Japan Airlines 787 in Boston. It was the only incident in which flames were detected, but the flames did not cause any damage to surrounding systems and primary structure and were themselves not the result of an exploding battery. Instead, the flames were generated by a short-circuit that formed in wires attached to the overheating battery box.

The NTSB members focused on why two such incidents occurred within 50,000 flight hours of the 787 fleet, when the FAA special conditions to certificate the aircraft's lithium-ion batteries required no more than one incident in 10 million flight hours.