The media loves fire on an aircraft. Fire scares people. Scaring sells news. Unfortunately, this comes to the detriment of Boeing and the 787 programme, which have faced intense scrutiny by media over a range of minor to hazardous issues, that question the safety of the aircraft.

The Boeing 787-8 suffered a series of incidents over the period, several of these a cracked windshield, minor fuel leak and brake issue are common operational issues. The FAA’s Emergency Airworthiness Directive (EAD) issued today focuses on the electrical architecture of the aircraft, specifically the safety of the GS Yuasa lithium-ion polymer battery, which has led to several incidents consistently traced back to the same issue:

04DEC2012 – United Airlines UA1146 diverted enroute due to an electrical malfunction. Multiple error messages, with flight crew requesting firefighters be vigilant of fuselage aft of wing area upon touchdown.

13DEC2012 – Qatar Airways grounded one of its 787 fleet due to an electrical fault upon arrival in Doha. CEO Akbar Al Baker wasn’t happy, jumped up and down, and shook his fists at Boeing.

17DEC2012 – United Airlines identifies a second electrical issue in a separate 787 to 04DEC incident.

07JAN2013 – Japan Airlines 787 JA829J suffered an incident on the ground at Tokyo Narita, in which smoke filled the cabin, and aft cargo compartment as a result of the APU battery in the rear electrical bay catching fire.

16JAN2013 РAll Nippon Airlines (ANA) 787  JA804A operated NH692 diverted to Takamatsu when the crew received battery problem indications, and detected an acrid, burning smell in the cockpit. The aircraft was evacuated on landing.

Aviation safety regulators in India, Japan, Poland, Qatar and Chile have suspended 787 operations for an indefinite period, with Ethiopia and Europe’s EASA likely to follow suit.

The location of the Lithium Ion batteries in the Boeing 787-8. Image: Boeing ARFF Data.

Following the commencement of the regulatory review earlier this week, the FAA has determined that “the battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage, and smoke” there is sufficient enough risk of onboard fire, or other electrical issues, to cease the programme. An investigation already initiated by the National Transportation Safety Bureau (NTSB), will now widened and led by the FAA, supported by Japan Transport Safety Board (JTSB) and Boeing.

Why in the first instance did the FAA allow the aircraft to continue to fly after announcing the safety review?  Why was the FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, so emphatic in saying the 787 was safe after he had announced a review, and before the NTSB had concluded an investigation?

NTSB photo of the aft Lithium Ion battery following the fire on the JAL 787 in Boston. Image: NTSB.

During its certification period and the aircraft’s first 15 months in service the 787 has suffered ongoing problems related to its electrical system. The first aircraft to support fully electric architecture, this replaces pneumatic bleed air systems used to drive cabin pressure and onboard systems, and operates at a significantly higher capacity 1.5MW than any other aircraft.

To support these systems the 787 requires a battery that can efficiently produce enough energy, and currently only less-stable Lithium Ion polymer batteries offer that capability. Overheating or overcharging the battery creates ignitable metallic lithium.

After years of testing the batteries were approved by the regulator with special conditions, and demonstrated assurances that the system would could isolate and shutdown the batteries in this instance, and inflight fire would be contained. Yet the system safeguards failed to prevent either incident incident in Japan.

Navigating in uncharted territory.

Is the 787 programme a disaster? Certainly not, the 787 like the A380 is technological leap in the way aircraft are designed, built and flown. And, every revolution has its problems, see Airbus A380, Boeing 747, Comet, Viscount.

These aircraft all suffered significant problems following their Entry Into Service (EIS). Who remembers the 747 having significant engine problems? All were eventually rectified. It is part of the natural development of aircraft that changes are made, and redesigns worked in, and changes made again. The number of Airworthiness Directives in worldwide circulation for all aircraft types demonstrates this.

With proven operational experience no customer is yet to cancel their orders over this incident, and none are likely too. Airlines awaiting imminent deliver of aircraft will be temporarily inconvenienced, Akbar Al Baker may jump up and down, and Boeing’s reputation will take another hit, but that doesn’t mean they lack faith in the aircraft’s future. The more resources pushed into engineering the 787 now, the better it will become.

As with the DC-10 and the A380 after QF32, it’s no surprise travellers will book away from the 787 for a period of time, concerned about reliability. But they will come back, they have loved the 787 to date. With this level of regulatory and developmental scrutiny we’re going to end up with an exceptionally safe next generation aircraft. It’s a matter of when, not if that happens.

The full statement from the FAA. Boeing’s full statement on 787 action.

This paper is excellent background reading on the FAA’s only other commercial grounding of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10.