Is Boeing's 787 Dreamliner too high-tech for its own good?

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner was designed to be a technological leap forward. But new technologies are often beset by glitches, and the 787's batteries are a big concern.

US National Transportation Safety Board/REUTERS
This burnt auxiliary power unit battery was removed from a Japan Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet. The US Federal Aviation Administration said it would temporarily ground 787s after a second incident involving battery failures caused one of the Dreamliner passenger jets to make an emergency landing in Japan.

The decision by aviation authorities worldwide to ground the Boeing 787 Dreamliner until problems with its batteries are addressed will cost the company money and consumer confidence and create inconvenience for airlines. But that is just the price of pushing the envelope on new technologies, experts say.

The 787 is a next-generation airliner designed to be 20 percent more energy efficient than earlier passenger jets. The 787's lithium-ion batteries are at the center of that leap forward: They produce more power relative to their size than do traditional nickel cadmium batteries, and the 787 relies on its batteries to do much more than previous jetliners do. Its control systems, for instance, are run by electricity, not hydraulics.

But lithium-ion batteries require careful management and can overheat and catch fire without it. The batteries will be a focus of the emergency inspections by aviation officials.

For now, the question is what will be needed to get Dreamliners back in the skies again, and how long that might take. But in the long run, the current challenges might be only a speed bump in the story of a pioneering technology, some experts add.  

“Look at the experience of Apple with their early iPhones catching on fire – but what that new technology has meant for millions,” says Andrew Thomas, author of “Soft Landing: Airline Industry Strategy, Service and Safety.” “It’s always the first guy through the door who gets bloodied, and this has probably gotten more attention because of the 24/7 news cycle. This comes about because of the relentless pursuit of perfection. Every great step forward seems to hit a setback like this, but people need to understand that all human endeavor runs into this.”

The consequences of a 787 catching fire are significantly greater than for an iPhone, however, meaning aviation authorities are taking no chances.

“There is hardly a worse emergency to have than a battery overheat in an airplane," says Rob Mark, a pilot and publisher of "It means you have to get on the ground, right now.”

“The FAA has done the right thing," he adds. "We have a new generation of plane that is all electronic and probably 100 times more complex than we have ever had.”

Mr. Mark and others say there was no real way to know exactly how the lithium-ion batteries would perform until the plane was designed and built. “The only question now is, how long will it take to fix this problem?" he says.

Early reports suggested that it might just be days, but Mark says: “I love Boeing and feel their pain, but I am skeptical this will be fixed that soon. It took years to design this plane, so I don’t think so.”

Boeing has delivered 50 of the planes so far and has more than 800 additional orders. The company says that until the recent issues cropped up there were about 150 daily flights of the Dreamliner by airlines including All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, United Airlines, and Air India.

"Boeing deeply regrets the impact that recent events have had on the operating schedules of our customers and the inconvenience to them and their passengers," said Jim McNerney, chairman, president, and CEO of Boeing, in a statement. "We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity.” 

Boeing's most recent problems with the plane extend beyond battery technology. Since July, problems have included a fuel leak, an oil leak, a damaged cockpit window, and two cracked engines.

This is the first time since 1979 that the US Federal Aviation Administration has grounded an entire fleet. It grounded DC-10s for 37 days after a crash at Chicago's O'Hare airport.

“They are always going to be extra cautious and they should be,” says Seth Kaplan of Airline Weekly magazine. “But if I had to bet, I would bet that a year from now we’ll all look back at this with the problem solved and say, ‘Yeah, that was the right thing to do at the time.’ ”

He and others say customers should take heart from the safety record already established. The first commercial Dreamliner flight took off in October 2011, flying from Tokyo to Hong Kong, and the planes flew without major problems for months.

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