Perspective on 787 Boston incident
Update: Wall Street Journal reporting United Airlines found mis-wired battery following inspections in wake of JAL 787 fire.
Update, 1215 PM PT: Boeing issued this statement regarding the fire incident:
“Regarding yesterday’s event onboard a Japan Airlines (JAL) 787 at Boston Logan Airport, we are working closely with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), our customer and other government agencies. JAL has reported that smoke detected while a 787 was on the ground after passengers disembarked and during cleaning was traced to the battery used to start the auxiliary power unit (APU).
“As is standard practice within the industry, it would be premature to discuss additional details at this stage as the investigation is ongoing. However, nothing that we’ve seen in this case indicates a relationship to any previous 787 power system events, which involved power panel faults elsewhere in the aft electrical equipment bay. Information about the prior events has been shared with the NTSB and they are aware of the details.
“Boeing is cooperating with the NTSB in the investigation of this incident. Before providing more detail, we will give our technical teams the time they need to do a thorough job and ensure we are dealing with facts not speculation.”
We’ve been inundated with calls from media asking what we think about the small fire and battery explosion on the JAL Boeing 787 parked at Boston. A couple of questions were common:
- What does this mean for the 787?
- Would you fly it?
- Is there a problem with the airplane?
- Are problems like this common with new airplanes?
Before addressing these specific issues, we want to say: use caution in drawing any conclusions. There is much more we don’t know than what we do know.
We don’t know:
- Was the plane using its APU or on ground power? We haven’t seen a definitive report on this.
- Was the battery defective? If so, was this a one-off defect or a design defect or a production defect?
- Or was there human error in constructing or installing the battery?
- Was there a system problem, defect or design issue that caused the battery fire, rather than the battery itself being the root cause?
- And so on…
To answer the questions that we’ve been asked above:
- It’s too early to draw any conclusions about what this means for the 787 program. If this is a one-off incident that is quickly identified, then there is little if any impact. If this a systemic design issue, then that’s a different answer which depends on what the design issue might be.
- Yes, we’d fly the 787.
- By this question, this is asking if there is a design flaw or flaws with the airplane. We don’t have anything to suggest this is the case, but in reality any conclusions that there is something “wrong” with the plane will have to come out of a thorough investigation.
- Most new aircraft types have teething issues, and the 787–with more new technology than any aircraft since the dawn of the jet age–is no exception. But we don’t have statistics to draw conclusions.
It is a major concern to us, however, that the battery is of a lithium-ion design. There have been at least one and maybe two cargo aircraft (both Boeing 747-400Fs) brought down by lithium battery fires in the cargo manifests. We acknowledge that these were large quantities of batteries being shipped, but we also note that the FAA has restricted these batteries in the passenger cabin (TV camera crews, for example, now have to adjust their plans to carry camera equipment on board previously equipped with these batteries).
The FAA imposed a Special Condition regarding the use of lithium batteries on the 787. It was fortunate that this incident occurred on the ground, shortly after passengers disembarked. We shudder to think had this malfunction occurred during a trans-Polar or trans-Ocean flight with no place to land.
It doesn’t appear to us that this incident had any connections to previous electronic glitches on the 787.