Someone Stick a (Pitch)Fork in the 787 : Is It Done?

Notwithstanding airport fire fighters, the battery fire - and an explosion - continued unchecked for 100 minutes on the 787 at Boston.
Notwithstanding airport fire fighters, the battery fire – and an explosion – continued unchecked for 100 minutes on the 787 at Boston.

For seven weeks now, we’ve had more and more bad news and alarming revelations as the 787 burning battery saga unfolds.  But this last week seems to set a new record for alarming revelations.

It sounds far-fetched to say that the 787 will never recover from the deep hole it is currently buried at the bottom of, and probably this is indeed untrue.  Just like de Havilland managed to recover from its Comet problems and after a four-year grounding, relaunched a new improved Comet that flew safely from 1958 and for almost 40 years before being finally retired, Boeing’s 787 will doubtless emerge phoenix-like from the ashes (of its battery fires!).

But the four-year delay killed the Comet (and largely de Havilland too).  The Comet changed from being a revolutionary new state of the art first ever passenger jet, to being dwarfed by the more modern and more advanced Boeing 707 which came out just a few months after the relaunch of the new Comet 4, and de Havilland was unable to make up the lost ground it had suffered.  Will the same thing now happen in opposite form, with Boeing’s somewhat innovative 787 losing ground to perhaps the Airbus A350 contender?

Boeing clearly has a ‘cannot afford to lose’ situation here where it must resolve all the 787 issues, potential issues, and public perception problems.

The future of the 787 program and plane is of course something we can only speculate on.  Let’s instead concentrate on the present, and in particular, the amazing revelation which came to light on Thursday, and the other bad news earlier in the week, too.

The Double-Delegated Certification

The ugly issue associated with the two battery fires is not just that they occurred, but that they should not have occurred.  Well, of course, no failure on a plane should ever occur, but in the case of the batteries, the FAA had specifically focused in on the new battery technology and had attached special requirements to its certification spelling out the degree of reliability that was mandated.

Unfortunately, although the FAA highlighted the reliability requirements for the batteries, it did not test the battery systems for compliance with its requirements.  It relied on Boeing to self-certify the battery system’s compliance with the FAA requirements (ie no more than one failure every ten million flight hours).

This much we already knew.  Now for the big surprise.

Boeing in turn relied on its component suppliers to self-certify the battery system.  So the FAA was relying on Boeing, and Boeing was relying on its suppliers, variously in Japan and France.  This is like peeling layers off the onion, and with each extra layer, the link between the FAA’s oversight and the reality of what was being certified becomes massively weaker.

Oh – Boeing also did some analysis of its own which found there was only one type of battery risk, and that was if it were to be overcharged.  However, as can currently be best determined, neither of the two battery failures that occurred were the result of overcharging.  How does Boeing explain that, one wonders (answer – Boeing does not explain it at all).

The result is not only have dozens of batteries had to be prematurely replaced in the operational planes, but the two battery fires that occurred.  And whereas, prior to now, the figure of ‘two failures in 100,000 flight hours’ has been loosely offered up, the NTSB has now exactly counted up the flight hours, and the total is just a tad under 59,000 flight hours.

The fact of two failures indicates that the first one wasn’t a unique never-to-be-repeated one-off event, but rather suggests some type of underlying systemic re-occurring problem (or problems), and the fact that these events are occurring every 30,000 flight hours, on average, rather than every 10,000,000 flight hours (as was certified by Boeing and believed by the FAA) makes one wonder just how ludicrous the certification process was and is.

This of course begs the question.  With almost everything on this plane having been self-certified, and with other major components also using new technology (ie carbon fibre), how much was certified by Boeing itself rather than by suppliers, and how reliable is any of the self-certification?

The credibility of the FAA and of Boeing in this self-certification process has been totally destroyed.

Which leads to another development.

Travel Insider Poll Independently Confirmed

On 8 February we held a reader poll inviting readers to give their opinion on how they felt about the overall safety of the 787.  Would they be happy flying on the plane, after the battery problem was fully fixed?

To our astonishment, an enormous 32% of readers who responded said they would flatly refuse to fly on the plane for the next year or two, until such time as they felt it had built up a reassuring history of safe operations.

We’d expected the majority of readers – level-headed frequent fliers that they are – would have quite happily flown on the 787 once its battery problem was fixed, but only 2% said they’d be less worried on a 787 than any other modern plane, and fewer than 25% rated it similarly as safe as other modern planes.

These results were so extremely negative we worried that there was some bias built-in to our questions or the people who chose to respond.  But now a second website has released results of their own reader poll – the respected Leeham News and Comment site has 46% of their readers wishing to wait a year or two before agreeing to fly on a 787.  That’s a much worse result than from our poll!

Our poll was a month ago, of course, and since that time there’s been a steady flow of more bad news about the plane, so we’d expect that if our poll were repeated today, the results would be more negative, and perhaps approaching the Leeham poll numbers.

Airlines have to be sensitive to this – the new wonder-plane is running afoul of their most valuable passengers, who it seems will do anything possible to avoid flying it.

The NTSB Report on Thursday

The NTSB released an ‘Interim Factual Report‘ into their investigation on Thursday 7 March.  Although it provides some details as to what had happened, and some history into the prior regulatory approval process for the battery system on the 787, it does not offer any conclusions or substantive findings on what went wrong to create the battery fires, and neither does it put forward any suggested solutions.

Instead, it offers a lengthy list of continued items to be investigated and reviewed, and indicates a plan to hold two public hearings into the matter as part of this ongoing process.

Oh – those two public hearings?  They are not scheduled any time soon.  They will occur in mid and late April.  That’s another month of obvious delay for Boeing – assuming the FAA chooses to prudently wait for a more definitive report from the NTSB before acting on Boeing’s request to get the plane back into service.  Which leads to :

The Uneasy Relationship Between Boeing, the FAA and the NTSB

As far as Boeing seems to be concerned, there never was a problem, there isn’t a problem now, and if there actually is a problem, then it’s not a problem because they’ve already come up with a solution (a more robust box to surround the battery).  They’d like to see the planes back in the air soonest – an understandable desire from a commercial and financial point of view, but from a safety point of view, perhaps not fully thought out.

On the other end of the spectrum is the NTSB, a body not known for being easily persuaded by airlines or airplane manufacturers.  You don’t have to read too carefully between the lines of their sometimes very cutting commentaries to see their deep concern about the two battery problems and the underlying certification process that erroneously resulted in these clearly unsafe batteries being deemed safe and fully beyond reproach.

In the middle is the FAA.  It was the FAA who initially certified the 787 as safe (ie by rubber-stamping Boeing’s self-certification), it was the FAA who caused the 787 to be withdrawn from service, and it is the FAA (not the NTSB) who will decide when it returns back to service again.

It is curious the roundabout way they grounded the 787s.  Rather than suspend the plane’s airworthiness certificate, they simply said the planes had to have the battery problem fixed before they could fly again.  This might seem like two sides of the same coin, but – as this article points out – by adopting this lesser approach the FAA helped Boeing save some face, and perhaps also helped itself save some face too, and may have also created an easier path to more quickly implement a lesser solution.

Is the FAA pro-Boeing or pro-safety?  Where does it see the appropriate compromise between 99.9999% safety and commercial feasibility as lying?

Here’s another article that looks at the FAA’s self-certification process and points out some appalling facts.  It seems the 787 battery was never tested using protocols the FAA created, but only by in-house Boeing (and presumably Thales and GS-Yuasa) protocols, the exact details of which remain undisclosed.  Boeing claimed that the FAA’s test protocols didn’t apply to its batteries, but continues to insist (goodness only knows how) that their batteries passed all the FAA’s requirements.  Let’s just ignore the two battery fires, shall we?

So will the FAA be quick or slow to allow the 787 to return to the skies?  Transportation Secretary LaHood is making all the right noises about insisting that everything be beyond perfect before approval will be granted, but whether that means that this is what will happen, or quite the opposite, is anyone’s guess, and Boeing is actively providing ‘informational briefings’ for members of Congress on the matter.

On Wednesday LaHood affirmed his intention

to get to the bottom of what happened, why it happened and what we can do prevent it

He had earlier promised that the plane wouldn’t take off again with passengers until investigators determined the precise cause of the overheating batteries and regulators felt “1,000% sure” of the plane’s safety.

But if the 787 does resume flights soon, it may be that LaHood’s public protestations are obscuring a private more compliant approach to giving Boeing the go-ahead.  He is, after all, a politician.

This article on Thursday, sourced from doubtless deliberate leaks from Boeing and the FAA, seems to imply the FAA is going to give in to Boeing and allow it to fast-track the 787’s safety compliance process.

A cautionary note to Boeing :  If you succeed in pressuring the FAA to allow the 787 back into service, that may not reassure the significant percentage of anxious fliers, and if a further problem should occur with the plane after its return to service, you’ve destroyed your remaining credibility.  Perhaps you might be well advised to allow this process to work through properly.

The Air Line Pilots Association Speaks Out Against Boeing’s ‘Fix’

On 22 February, Boeing submitted a ‘fix’ to the FAA, asking for the FAA to approve its workaround to the battery problem (the key part of which was simply putting a big fireproof box around the battery).

The Air Line Pilots Association – a group with an obvious vested interest in the matter – seems to be telling the FAA that it is not happy with this ‘fix’; something that almost certainly weakens Boeing’s chances of a fast approval.

Indeed, we are unaware of any third-party group speaking approvingly of Boeing’s suggested ‘fix’.  The only supporters seem to be Boeing and possibly the FAA.

Boeing Exec Suffers Foot in Mouth Disease

Boeing has been consistently maladroit in its handling of the 787 problems; indeed, ever since the 787 program commenced, there has been a yawning credibility gap between Boeing’s various promises and the eventual realities that transpired.  Boeing’s focus seems to have regrettably shifted from making the best planes possible, and letting the truth of their planes’ superiority speak for themselves, to now making the most profitable planes possible and compensating for any inadequacies with lashings of public relations noise.

Incredibly, Boeing still does not seem to have accepted there is a major problem with its plane’s battery system.  But, Boeing does say it has fixed the (non-existent) problem.  This article quotes Boeing as claiming it has now spent over 200,000 hours of analysis and testing on what might have gone wrong with the batteries, and how to prevent it from happening again.

That’s for sure an impressive number of hours.  But, impressive or not, I wonder if Boeing could now summarize and tell us what it has found to be the cause, and what it is doing to prevent battery fires from re-occurring.

Boeing is totally silent on both points because, and 200,000 hours notwithstanding, neither Boeing, nor the US authorities, nor the Japanese authorities, nor any of the other parties involved, yet know what caused the battery fires, and if they don’t know what caused them, they surely don’t know how to prevent them.

Boeing’s main ‘fix’ is to put the battery in a more fire-proof box so that if the battery does catch fire again, hopefully the entire plane won’t crash and burn.  And, you know, that sort of ‘solution’ hardly seems like it requires 200,000 hours of time, does it.

Let’s actually look at the claim that Boeing has spent 200,000 hours on this project.

The planes were grounded on Wednesday afternoon, 16 January.  Boeing submitted its fix to the FAA on 22 February.  From 17 Jan through and including 21 Feb, there are 36 days.  Let’s assume that each person involved in the project has been working a heavy 50 hours a week, so that calculates out to a team of 780 people assigned to the problem.

That might be possible.  Except for one thing.  Boeing itself earlier boasted that it had 200 engineers working on the project.  That is 200, not 780.

So the 200,000 hour claim seems a bit fanciful, to put it politely.

More Electrical System Problems Appearing

There have been cases of 787s that have been ‘miswired’, but even more alarmingly, this week saw a report surface that revealed there have been fires problems with electrical circuit boards on three of ANA’s 787s.  Read this report and note how very carefully the article and the Japanese people reporting the fires problems avoid using any four letter words beginning with the letter ‘f’.

And So, the Fork Test?

In our non-scientific and uninformed opinion, the 787 is approaching a FUBAR status.  It is almost eight weeks into the plane’s grounding, and it seems we’re none the wiser for what caused the battery problems.  Instead, investigators have uncovered a litany of problems with the certification process that throws the credibility of every aspect of the plane’s certification into doubt, and we’ve discovered additional problems with other parts of the plane’s electrical system.

What has to be done to resolve the battery problem, other than putting a box around the troublesome battery as Boeing wants to do; or swapping it out for a time-honored safe Nicad battery, as Airbus has now done with its A350 but Boeing refuses to countenance?  And how long will it take to do this?

More to the point, how can Boeing and the FAA jointly reassure the flying public that the 787 truly is safe in all respects?  And how long will it take to do this?

In the absence of any such clear reassurance, it seems that increasingly, passengers will do their own testing, by refusing to fly on the plane for a year or two subsequent to it restarting service, and only if the plane survives that long without further problems will they start to trust it anew.

For a history of this evolving saga, please read back through our weekly roundups – the 787 has been the lead story each week since its grounding.  The 787 problem is an aviation writer’s dream – the gift that keeps giving at present with always lots to write about; but also threatens to become a passenger’s worst nightmare.

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