Jan 182013
 
The failed battery from the ANA flight on Wednesday, showing the eight charred cells inside it.

The failed battery from the ANA flight on Wednesday, showing the eight charred cells inside it.

It is unsurprising that Boeing is desperately keen to get the flight prohibition lifted from its 787 jets.

But it would be more reassuring to us all if Boeing would actually slow down and make 110% sure that its suggested fixes actually will fix the problems, rather than merely being nothing more than cosmetic pr style bandaids that do no long-term good at all.

This article reports on some very worrying moves by Boeing in attempting to quickly lift the flight restriction.

Boeing is suggesting, for example, that the batteries should be visually inspected prior to each flight.  Okay, we’ve nothing against visually inspecting the batteries, although we’re not quite sure how readily accessible they may be, and it isn’t just the external battery case that needs inspecting, but rather the individual cells.  However, the real issue here is that this suggestion is NOT a solution, for two reasons, and it is alarming in the extreme that Boeing would suggest this is all that is needed.

First, a battery usually gives no visual warning of its incipient failure until maybe a minute before it explodes, and possibly not even then.  So inspecting the batteries is close to useless.

But even if there were a readily visible indicator of incipient failure (or, better still, a clear visual indicator of failure in 20 – 50 hours time into the future) that’s not all.  The second reason for rolling our eyes in horror at Boeing’s suggestion is that some sources are suggesting the problem is not only a battery problem but also a problem with the battery charging circuitry.  If that is the case, inspecting the batteries before a flight does nothing to ensure the charging circuits work properly during the flight.

It is also quite possible that both the charging circuits and the batteries too are problematic.

There’s another interesting fact that is casually mentioned in passing in the article.  It refers to the two batteries that failed – one of which was a replacement battery.

That begs the question – why was a battery that was only some ten months old replaced?  These batteries should have massively longer service lives than ten months – what caused the premature failure/replacement of the battery in October?  Was this a unique event, or are other batteries failing early too?  What was the form of the failure that required a battery replacement in October?

It also makes the suggestion that all batteries in all planes be given a ‘health check’ right now of little reassurance.  If batteries are needing to be replaced in less than a year, and if the two batteries which explosively failed were both only a couple of months old, how long does this ‘health check’ remain valid for?

The concept of the battery ‘health check’ is also something that is at best vague and nebulous – and again presupposes that the problem is a battery problem, not a charging problem.

The concept of a ‘health check’ is also shown to be of little value when one considers that presumably the batteries have been multiply tested and ‘health checked’ at every step of the supply process prior to being installed in the planes.  We have to believe there is multiple redundant quality control processes already in place.  If all these ‘health checks’ failed to detect the two batteries that exploded barely two months after being placed into service, what will a further ‘health check’ now uncover?

From our perspective, Boeing seems more focused on cosmetic actions to enable it to bully the FAA into allowing it to return its planes to the air, rather than carefully taking as long as needed to fully uncover the problems and fully develop genuine solutions.

Either that or perhaps Boeing simply doesn’t have a clue about the problem or what is required to fix it.  ‘Health checks’ and ‘visual inspections’ are not the way forward.  Let’s hope the FAA understands this better than Boeing.

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