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Friday, Jan. 18, 2013
Boeing's broken dreams
A Boeing 787 jet operated by All Nippon Airways made an emergency landing at Takamatsu airport in Kagawa Prefecture on Wednesday after smoke was detected in the cockpit. By the time all 137 passengers and crew members on board evacuated through emergency chutes, the smoke had filled the cabin of the jet, which was flying from Ube Airport in Yamaguchi Prefecture to Haneda airport in Tokyo.
This is the latest and most serious of a series of problems involving Boeing 787 Dreamliners, so named because of their greatly enhanced fuel efficiency thanks to new design and technologies. The transport ministry characterized the Wednesday problem as a grave incident that could have caused an accident.
In an appropriate move, ANA and Japan Airlines have grounded their Dreamliner fleets for emergency checks, and the transport ministry has issued a formal order to that effect. ANA, now operating 17 787s, has ordered a total of 66 Dreamliners and JAL, now operating seven Dreamliners, has ordered 45 in total. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has also grounded the jet and will require airlines to demonstrate that the plane's state of the art lithium ion batteries are safe before allowing flights. To ensure passenger safety, Japanese and U.S. aviation authorities, the maker and airlines must undertake thorough investigations to determine the causes of the problems plaguing the new airliner, share information and make their investigation results public.
The series of problems involving the aircraft include a fire that ignited on Jan. 7 in the battery pack for an auxiliary power unit of a JAL 787 at Boston's Logan International Airport, the leakage of some 150 liters of fuel the next day from another JAL 787 at the same airport. On Jan. 9, ANA was forced to cancel a flight after a computer wrongly indicated a brake problem. On Jan. 11, ANA reported a minor fuel leak and a cracked windshield. On Jan. 13,the same JAL jetliner that leaked fuel in Boston reported another leak at Narita International Airport. Seven problems involving Boeing 787s have been reported in January alone.
The smoke on Wednesday was caused by a fire that reportedly started in an electronic equipment compartment beneath the cockpit that houses the main batteries. The battery pack was blackened and there was evidence of electrolyte leakage. These batteries and those involved in the Boston problem are lithium ion batteries manufactured by Kyoto-based GS Yuasa Corp (Japanese makers are responsible for 35 percent of the aircraft's parts).
The Boeing 787 uses five times more electricity than conventional jets because many of its systems are electronically rather than mechanically operated. This power is supplied independently of the engines by lithium ion batteries — an approach that allows the output of the engines to be used solely for thrust. This, combined with the 787's lightweight composite bodywork, gives it 20 percent better fuel economy than conventional jets — a major selling point and the primary reason why airline companies worldwide have ordered roughly 800 787s.
In the development stage, the aircraft suffered from a series of design-related problems and the delivery of the plane to ANA was delayed by more than three years. Depending on the investigation results, Boeing should not hesitate to carry out design changes.