FAA Approves Boeing Certification Plan. 787 Still Grounded

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The 787 Dreamliner has turned into a public relations nightmare that threatens the viability of Boeing.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today approved Boeing’s certification plan for a redesigned 787-battery system after reviewing  proposed modifications and the tests to prove that the lithium ion batterysystem will meet FAA requirements.

The battery system changes include a redesign of the internal battery components to minimize a short circuit within the battery pack, improved insulation of the cells and the addition of a new containment and venting system to prevent smoke caused by fires from entering the cabin.

United Airlines is currently the only U.S. airline operating the 787, with six airplanes. The worldwide in-service fleet includes 50 aircraft in total that are now grounded by various aviation regulators. Several hundred 787s are on order, turning the Dreamliner into a multi-billion dollar nightmare for Boeing if the planes remain hanger queens.

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There are the eight individual battery cells in the battery case. It also contains two circuit boards that comprise the battery-monitoring unit, a Hall Effect current sensor for current monitoring, a contactor, and bus bars for the main current pathways between the cells and to the J3 connector. The J3 connector leads outside of the battery case. There are sense wires leading to the BMU and the J1 connector, which also leads outside of the battery case.

The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating the 787’s electrical system design and the FAA’s role in its initial certification. The NTSB is often critical of the FAA, which has dual roles of both promoting air commerce and regulating it for safety, for allowing unsafe operating conditions, lax regulations of pilots and mechanics or faulty designs. (See preliminary NTSB Report)

A series of mishaps on the Boeing 787 including, engine oil leaks, cracked windshields and a fire on the ramp at Boston’s Logan airport prompted the FAA to promise a “comprehensive review” of the design, manufacture and assembly of the so-called Dreamliner last January. The 787 designation was the date of an elaborate unveiling during July of 2007, with the first flights planned for that August. The twin-engine composite aircraft had several production delays before finally entering service years late.

The FAA finally grounded the Boeing 787 Dreamliner after yet another life-threatening incident, the apparent failure and fire of a lithium ion battery-pack during the flight of a Nippon Air 787 in Japan. The reluctant safety regulator finally acted only days after the DOT head, Republican Ray La Hood, claimed that the 787 Dreamliner was safe to fly in the face of a growing number of troubling incidents that included the fire on the ground of a 787 at Logan Airport.

The latest FAA certification plan – it certified the 787 as safe before it entered production with FAA employees logging 200,000 hours of work during the 787 type certification – is the first step in the process to evaluate the 787’s return to flight. It requires Boeing to conduct testing and analysis to demonstrate compliance with the applicable safety regulations and special conditions.

Some critics argue the FAA was not competent to certify the world’s most advanced aircraft, mirroring criticisms directed at NHTSA, the auto safety agency that is also part of the Department of Transportation, when it was revealed that the agency only had one electronics engineer on staff during U.S. Congressional hearings over the Toyota unintended acceleration tragedy. Lithium ion batteries are also in growing use at automakers for hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles. So the safety issue is of more than passing interest to auto engineers.

“This comprehensive series of tests will show us whether the proposed battery improvements will work as designed,” claimed Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who also claimed after the Logan Airport fire that the 787 was safe to fly.

The FAA also has approved limited test flights for two 787 aircraft. These aircraft will have the prototype versions of the new containment system installed. The purpose of the flight tests will be to validate the aircraft instrumentation for the battery and battery enclosure testing in addition to product improvements for other systems.

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About Kenneth Zino

Ken Zino is an auto industry veteran with global experience in print, broadcast and electronic media. He has auto testing, marketing, public relations and communications expertise garnered while working in Asia, Europe and the U.S.
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