A few years back, my friend Sean’s son had a laptop malfunction: the battery blew. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but if that laptop had at the time been in use as a laptop (i.e., perched on someone’s lap), well…that might have hurt.
I thought of this laptop mishap when we began hearing about the Dreamliner battery problems, which first came to notice when a Dreamliner electrical fire at Logan Airport resulted in the plane being grounded. A follow-on incident in another plane a few weeks later, and all of the Dreamliners in operation have had their wheels chocked while Boeing, the FAA, and the NTSB do root cause analysis and figure out the fix.
I really and truly want to like the Dreamliner. It’s more fuel efficient than most planes, which will squeeze some of the guilt out of flying. (Not that I feel guilty about flying. But, given my tremendous capacity for guilt, it’s entirely possible that at some point I might add my couple-of-times-a-year flights to my gilt-edge guilt list.) And maybe some ticket costs – like that fuel surcharge – can be squeezed out, too.
And then there’s the fact that aircraft are one of the US’s largest exports. Given our unquenchable thirst for i-Whatevers, flat screen TV’s, Nikes, and Halloween costumes made somewhere else, it’s nice to balance up the trade a bit. So Lord knows we want people to keep ordering from Boeing.
And, of course, there’s that wondrous name: The Dreamliner.
Let’s face it, most airplanes are numbers, not names. We fly Boeing 767’s or Airbus A320’s. The last plane with a cool name was the Tri-Star, but we all called it the L1011. Boring, boring, boring.
How much more romantic it is to fly on a Dreamliner.
The very name harkens back to the early days of air travel, when male passengers wore suits and ties, and women passengers kept their hats on (if not their gloves) for the entire flight; when meals were served on real china, even if you weren’t in first class; when you dabbed your mouth with a real linen napkin, even if you weren’t in first class; when the food tasted like food, even if you weren’t in first class; and when stewardesses were also RN’s just in case something untoward happened to a suited or hatted passenger midflight.
In those days, passengers congratulated themselves on making “the crossing” more speedily than on the Queen Mary, and more safely than on the Hindenburg. (“Oh, the humanity.”)
Who wouldn’t want to fly on a Dreamliner, rather than on the typical nightmare-liner, with its cramped seats, fetid toilets, and still half-frozen dinner rolls?
Alas, it may be a while before the Dreamliner is back in operation, as the world tries to determine what went wrong - and maybe even what Boeing knew, and when did they know it.
For now, of course, the news is being revived that there may have been early-on problems with Boeing’s lithium battery strategy.
In fact, a 787 battery blew its stack during a test in 2006, and burned the lab building down:
The Arizona lab fire showed the challenges facing Boeing’s strategy to safely manage that energy, prevent such a blowout and contain any less serious battery problems.
A single battery connected to prototype equipment exploded, and despite a massive fire-department response the whole building burned down. (Source: Seattle Times)
Boeing did come up with an approach, which the FAA approved, to make sure that a “catastrophic blowout” wouldn’t happen. But given the Logan fire and the later emergency landing of a 787 – which I guess should start going by its number alone, until they solve the problem and put the dream back in Dreamliner – is sending Boeing back to the drawing boards.
While there’ve “only” been two battery incidents out of a total of 18,000 actual flights, by airliner standards, that’s way to common. Thus the 787’s remain o the ground.
Meanwhile, Boeing has been (somewhat) downplaying the problem, stating that it has designed the system so that any battery meltdown pretty much contains itself, and that you have to trust that the plane will be A-OK. According to Boeing VP – and chief engineer on the 787 project – Mike Sinnett:
Boeing’s design solution is to contain that outcome until the combusting battery cell or cells burn out.
“You have to assume that it’s going to go and that it’s going to expend all of its energy…You have to be good with the amount of heat and smoke that’s generated from that event,” he added.
At this point, it does appear that the 787 incidents, while certainly troubling, weren’t of the supremely dangerous variety. So far, it looks like overheated batteries causing small fires versus overcharged batteries exploding. When that happens, well… Here’s what occurred at that lab in 2006:
During testing of a prototype charging-system design in the 2006 incident, “the battery caught fire, exploded, and Securaplane’s entire administrative building burned to the ground,” according to a summary by the administrative law judge in a related employment lawsuit.
The ruinous fire resisted the initial efforts of two employees with fire extinguishers, and escalated, despite the dispatch of a fleet of fire trucks, to destroy the 10,000-square-foot building.
It reached temperatures of about 1,200 degrees and resulted in losses of millions of dollars.
The cause of the battery explosion was not firmly established. The battery may have been overcharged, and human error in the testing was not ruled out. Indeed, Boeing insists it was an improper test setup.
In any case, it’s not something you want to happen when you’re flying 30,000 feet over the cold, gray Atlantic at night. (It’s not like hitting an iceberg and having a lot of time to fret about who’s getting a seat in one of the too-few lifeboats, but it still probably seems like a long way down when you’re trying to figure out if you’re in a nosedive or going to make a flat-belly landing and water slide into a rubber raft. Maybe planes should start including orchestra renditions of “Nearer My God to Thee” on one of the inflight entertainment channels.)
In the meantime, at Boeing, it’s Dreamliner, errrr, 787 on:
Boeing has little choice but to keep its assembly lines in South Carolina and Washington State running at their normal pace, building five jets a month. A significant slowdown in production, let alone a full shutdown, would be too costly for both Boeing and its suppliers who are counting on making parts for the aircraft….A halt in production or even a slow down would risk crucial suppliers going out of business. "They need to keep the lines running to support the supply chain. They can't do that to suppliers that barely survived the three year delay in producing the first plane," [said Carter Leake, an aerospace analyst with BB&T Capital Markets].(Source: Money-CNN.)
Good to know that the production line goes on, and that the improved fuel economy that the 787 promises has kept airliners from canceling any orders – yet. Boeing is, of course, hoping that all the investigations will conclude quickly, and that the fix won’t be major. Me, too. (I can dream, can’t I?)
*And a tip of the jaunty stewardess cap of yore to friend and Pink Slip reader Valerie for alerting me to the 2006 battery problem.