A safety regulator on Thursday released hundreds of pages of details from its probe of a battery fire aboard Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, but the information did not reveal what caused the January blaze, and a call for hearings on the matter could slow efforts to get the plane back in the air. The National Transportation Safety Board said it would hold two public meetings in April, one on the design and certification of Boeing 787‘s battery system, and a second on general lithium-ion battery technology the same month. The NTSB is poring over the entire system, from the burned battery carcass to the certification and testing by the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing. Some experts were surprised by the hearings, given that there was no loss of life from the battery that caught fire aboard a parked jet shortly after it landed at Boston’s Logan International Airport in January. A second incident in Japan a few days later prompted regulators worldwide to ban the 787 from commercial flight on January 16, a restriction costing Boeing and airlines millions of dollars a day.
On the other hand, the NTSB’s decision to hold two public meetings next months have caused experts to have second thoughts about a possible slow down in the investigation process:
“It’s unusual to have hearings when you haven’t had a major incident,” said John Hansman, co-chairman of an FAA advisory committee and a professor of aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Such “unprecedented public scrutiny” of the battery, he said, tends to slow down the process and make people behave more conservatively. “They don’t want to look like they’re being rash.” The NTSB’s 39-page “interim factual report,” part of 499 pages of studies released on Thursday, provides extensive detail on the testing performed on the battery. It also makes clear that investigators remain a long way from understanding why the battery caught fire in the first place.
More importantly, US government’s investigators do not have experience on lithium-ion batteries:
Boeing Co.’s proposed fixes for lithium-ion batteries on its 787 jetliner face an uncomfortable reality: government investigators’ limited experience with such devices is hobbling efforts to determine precisely why they burned. U.S. and Japanese aviation authorities have confronted a steep learning curve trying to unravel what caused last month’s battery failures on a pair of 787 Dreamliners, which led to a world-wide grounding of the planes. Authorities are seeking help from outsiders with greater knowledge, but a major reason for the slow progress in the probes, according to air-safety experts, is that investigators themselves lack expertise about the intricacies of the new technology. Lithium-ion batteries are commonplace in consumer electronics and electric vehicles, but despite being lighter and more efficient than older technology, they have never been used in aircraft as extensively as on Boeing’s flagship jetliner.
Boeing instructed a small team of top machinists at its Auburn parts plant to begin building new, high-strength containment boxes for the lithium-ion batteries on its 787s as part of a redesign intended to get the planes flying again as soon as April. An Auburn insider said the company ordered 200 such boxes, with the first 100 to be ready by March 18. Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner will lay out the company’s plan to Federal Aviation Administration officials Friday, but it’s unclear whether regulators will sign on to the fast-paced schedule.