A flighty dream, grounded on account of the very battery that powered it

Mihir Mishra Posted: Jan 18, 2013 at 0320 hrs
What is the Dreamliner?

Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is its technologically most advanced aircraft, and was catching on with airlines worldwide until the grounding.

Who fly it?

Air India has ordered 27 Dreamliners and Jet Airways 10, out of 848 orders by airlines across the globe. Boeing has delivered 50, including six to Air India (see box) which runs three on domestic routes and three on international routes. No dates have been announced for delivery to to Jet Airways. Deliveries have usually been behind schedule, the first to All Nippon Airways (September 2011) by three years and that to Air India (September 2012) by four years.

What is the technology that makes it special?

It is made of carbon composite material rather than metals such as aluminum. Composite makes it light and so fuel-efficient that Boeing estimates it consumes 20 per cent less fuel than any other aircraft the same size would have. It uses electricity to perform tasks that other aircraft perform with the use of hot air vented through internal ducts. Its other distinguishing features include a four-panel windshield and noise-reducing chevrons on its engine nacelles, making the cabin much quieter. Most significantly, the Dreamliner is the first aircraft to extensively use lithium-ion batteries. These have been the focus of concerns.

Why are those concerns?

Lithium-ion batteries carry the risk of catching fire, having been chosen on account of their ability to take a large charge in a short time. The Dreamliner has two batteries, the main one near the front, the second one in the rear. It is two immediate scares involving such batteries, in fact, that have led to the grounding.

What were those scares?

Each involved a Dreamliner run by a different Japanese airline. On January 7, a battery overheated and started a fire on an empty Japan Airlines plane, parked at Boston’s Logan Airport. And on Wednesday, All Nippon Airways pilots smelt something burning and got a cockpit warning of battery problems during a flight from Yamaguchi Ube to Tokyo. They made an emergency landing at Takamatsu airport, where passengers were evacuated. An inspection found that an inflammable liquid from the main lithium-ion battery had leaked below and slightly behind the cockpit — something that could have led to an accident — besides burn marks around the damage.

How many aircraft were eventually grounded?

The two Japanese airlines, which between them run 24 of the world’s 50 current Dreamliners, grounded their full fleets. They were followed by airlines elsewhere including Air India. In the US, regulator FAA grounded the Dreamliner nationwide until Boeing addresses the risk of battery fires. This was followed by Indian regulator DGCA, and those for Europe and Qatar.

Were the lithium-ion batteries indeed to blame?

That is what the initial inquiry suggests; the final inquiry report is not yet in.

Where else are such batteries used?

Batteries similar to those in the Dreamliner are used in satellites and the US military’s new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Smaller-scale lithium-ion batteries have been used for more than 20 years to power laptops and other electronic items. They are also becoming increasingly popular in electric cars. GS Yuasa, a Japanese company, supplies all lithium-ion batteries for 787s.

Has the Dreamliner faced problems earlier?

Technical glitches are said to have been the reason deliveries were delayed in the first place. In operation, the first problem cropped up within a year and three months. More recently, Japan’s ANA cancelled a domestic flight to Tokyo after a computer wrongly indicated there was a problem with its brakes. The ANA has also reported a minor fuel leak and a cracked cockpit windscreen. In the US, United Airlines reported a problem with the wiring in the same area as the one that caused the battery fire on the JAL craft in Boston, leading to a probe by the US National Transportation Safety Board.

When will the Dreamliner fly again?

In the US, not until the FAA is satisfied the problem can be rectified. In Japan, investigations may take longer. In India, too, Boeing will have to satisfy the DGCA that the planes are safe, but since Air India’s Dreamliners have not yet reported a major problem, the DGCA could lift the grounding order if and after the FAA does so.