As safety authorities across the United States and Japan work tirelessly to determine which design flaws or condition monitoring failures may be to blame, Boeing's business plans and brand reputation hang in the balance.
Boeing's long-awaited line of 787 Dreamliner jets have been heralded as a significant step forward in the future of air travel. Unfortunately, two recent incidents regarding overheated batteries have marred the company's initial rollout. As safety authorities across the United States and Japan work tirelessly to determine which design flaws or condition monitoring failures may be to blame, Boeing's business plans and brand reputation hang in the balance.
Confirming the symptoms
The trouble touched off just a few days into the new year, as one of the batteries onboard a Boeing 787 burst into flames while on the tarmac of Boston's Logan International Airport. Approximately a week later, similar concerns regarding battery overheating forced a domestic flight in Japan to make an emergency landing shortly after take off. As a result, the company's entire fleet of 50 Dreamliners stands grounded out of precaution.
According to NPR, the 63-pound lithium-ion batteries in question have a history of temperature control issues. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) imposed several additional safety conditions upon Boeing after it was decided that the batteries would be included in production plans. Although the fire decimated much of the evidence, investigators have suggested that a series of uncontrolled chemical reactions characteristic to the battery model may have exceeded tolerable levels.
Investigating the causes
Government authorities and industry experts across two continents are now actively engaged in finding the root cause of these dangers and assigning accountability. According to The Associated Press, the original battery maker has been effectively cleared from liability after investigators found no suggestive mechanical defaults in the original construction. The focus has now shifted to determining if adequate condition monitoring tools were designed in to accurately gauge the state of the batteries.
Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Bureau will be probing a variety of regulatory issues - including the FAA's approval process for clearing the innovative 787 line for commercial flight.
"Were those certification standards adhered to, and then the question of 'Were they appropriate?'" NTSB chairperson Deborah Hersman told reporters. "We will be working very closely with a number of groups, including the FAA and Boeing, as we collect that information and evaluate the analysis and the risk assessments that were done."
Determining the business prognosis
As engineering experts and government authorities pursue answers as to whether predictive maintenance options were overlooked or mechanical anomalies were to blame, Boeing executives are waiting with baited breath.
According to the AP, the 787 delivery schedule was already three years behind on account of manufacturing delays and a uniquely complex international supply chain. The fact that Boeing has stumbled so early after righting the ship and getting Dreamliners airborne comes as a considerable disappointment to airlines which have previously put up with the fleet's tardiness and will now have to reconfigure service schedules while the planes remain grounded.
As a result, a project which was supposed to put Boeing miles ahead of the competition could take a serious toll on its brand reputation and operating margins. The one saving grace to this saga was that Boston battery fire took place on the ground, and not 40,000 feet in the air. But as the Japanese incident suggests, that may be more attributable to good fortune than due diligence.