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Safety, United Airlines

Boeing: further flights of fantasy on Dreamliner battery problem

Boeing: Dreamliner battery tests should be done soon. From Boeing’s chutzpah-laden pronouncements at Friday’s press briefing in Tokyo:

Boeing says it still doesn’t know why batteries failed, but the fixes they have developed will cover any possible future problem, and the airliner should be back flying shortly.

(emphasis mine)

ANA 787 smokelinerWell, that’s a relief! They know that any possible future failure will not be a problem. No need worrying about those pesky root causes.

Look, I don’t pretend to be an aeronautical engineer. But I was a software engineer (yeah, I know, “not real engineers”), and I’ve been involved in plenty of QA, root cause analysis, risk mitigation, and similar failure post-mortems. Thankfully with no literal post-mortems, and thankfully due to ANA & JAL’s voluntary actions which prompted the slow / lazy / industry-captured FAA to ground all US 787s (something which United refused to do voluntarily despite their joint-venture revenue-share partner ANA having one burst into flames in the USA), no actual post-mortems on people from the Flameliner either.  Foreign 787 carriers such as LOT, LAN, Ethiopian, Emirates, Air India (faulty planes and flawed, dysfunctional, often considered unsafe Air India, what a combo!) then followed the FAA advice.

You simply do not make categorical statements that amount to “nothing can possibly go wrong”,  when you do not know what the hell caused the problem in the first place! As one of the comments noted, what if there is an 81st or 84th failure possibility that Boeing’s “we worked through 80 possible failures” braggadocio simply didn’t foresee? They claim the venting to the outside rear underside of the fuselage will prevent an onboard fire.

Oh, great. Except, what if it happens on the ground, like that ill-fated ANA 787 at Boston’s Logan International Airport. And what if there is a “ramper” (ground worker, baggage handler, etc.) working behind the aircraft when it decides to become a flamethrower?

The mitigations that Boeing are doing are just that, mitigations. They are good ideas, if they insist on continuing with the Lithium-ion battery strategy, especially the older-type Li-on chemistry they are using. But they are what Boeing should have done right from the start. Oh, now you realize insulation that only is good up to 150 degrees C isn’t a good idea? Now your execs say they and their family would fly on this after the fix because it is completely safe? The same execs that said the same thing after the first fire before the grounding?

Boeing clearly is refusing to switch to known-safe (thermally, not ecologically) NiCad or slightly newer Lithium Metal Hydride batteries. Unlike Airbus, who have changed their competing A350XWB aircraft being delivered next year to NiCad in the wake of the Boeing 787 debacle. But until Boeing and its suppliers better understand what went wrong, they have no business putting passengers back onto aircraft that can have a critical battery catch fire, with just an “it’s ok, we’ll vent it outside”. As if that is OK.

About Mark Mercer

Expat aging sometime-ski-bum former corporate tool. Currently living in the beachside aging resort town of Atlántida in Uruguay. Sometimes skiing and teaching in Breckenridge, Colorado, USA. Location and velocity cannot be simultaneously observed.


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