Early Concern about 787's Battery ; 10 Units Were Replaced by One Airline in Months before Planes' Grounding

By Christopher Drew; Hiroko Tabuchi; Jad Mouawad | International Herald Tribune, January 31, 2013 | Go to article overview

Early Concern about 787's Battery ; 10 Units Were Replaced by One Airline in Months before Planes' Grounding


Christopher Drew; Hiroko Tabuchi; Jad Mouawad, International Herald Tribune


Officials at All Nippon Airways said the airline had replaced 10 of the batteries in the months before fire and smoke in two cases caused regulators around the world to ground the Boeing 787 jets.

Even before two battery failures led to the grounding of all Boeing 787 jets this month, the lithium-ion batteries used on the aircraft had experienced several problems that raised questions about their reliability.

Executives at All Nippon Airways, the biggest operator of the jets, said during an interview this week that the carrier had replaced 10 of the batteries in the months before fire and smoke in two cases caused regulators around the world to ground the jets.

The airline said that it had told Boeing of the replacements as they occurred but that it had not been required to report them to safety regulators because no flights were canceled. Officials at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said those battery replacements were now part of their inquiry.

The airline also explained, for the first time, the extent of the previous problems, which added to concerns about whether Boeing and other plane makers could use them safely.

In 5 of the 10 replacements, All Nippon said the main battery had shown an unexpectedly low charge. An unexpected drop in the charge of a 787's main battery also occurred on the All Nippon flight that made an emergency landing in Japan on Jan. 16.

The airline also revealed that in three instances the main battery failed to start normally and had to be replaced, along with the charger. In other cases, one battery showed an error reading and another, used to start the auxiliary power unit, failed. All of the events occurred from May to December of last year. The malfunctioning batteries, made by the Japanese manufacturer GS Yuasa, were serviced by All Nippon maintenance crew members.

Japan Airlines, which operates seven 787s, said Wednesday that there had been "several cases" in which maintenance crew members needed to replace 787 batteries after irregularities, but the carrier declined to give details. The actions were not considered a safety risk and were conducted "within the scope of regular maintenance," said Kazunori Kidosaki, a company spokesman.

Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for the N.T.S.B., said investigators had only recently heard that there were "numerous issues with the use of these batteries" on 787s. She said the board had asked Boeing, All Nippon and other airlines for information about the problems.

"That will absolutely be part of the investigation," she said.

On Wednesday, Boeing reported a fourth-quarter profit that topped analyst estimates and said it did not expect the recent problems with the batteries on the 787 to have a significant effect on its earnings this year.

W. James McNerney Jr., the chief executive of Boeing, said in a statement that fixing the battery problems was the company's "first order of business for 2013." And even though the planes have been grounded and Boeing has temporarily halted deliveries, the company said it still planned to deliver 60 of the planes this year.

Rob Stallard, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, wrote in a note to investors that the company's forecast for 787 deliveries was lower than the 93 he had expected.

Boeing, based in Chicago, said its net profit in the fourth quarter was $978 million, or $1.28 a share. That was 9 cents a share higher than the average analyst estimate. Still, profit was down 30 percent from the $1.39 billion, or $1.84 a share, in the quarter a year earlier, when a favorable tax settlement lifted earnings.

Boeing said its revenue rose 14 percent in the fourth quarter, to $22.3 billion from $19.55 billion a year earlier.

Boeing has said repeatedly that any problems with the batteries can be contained without threatening the planes and their passengers.

Boeing executives said the fact that problems were identified and the batteries successfully replaced also suggested that safeguards were activated to prevent overheating and keep the drained batteries from being recharged. …

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