January 17, 2013 – (Louisville, KY): Within 15 minutes of exiting the US Customs Hall at San Francisco International Airport yesterday, I receive news the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is grounding the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. I had just arrived from Tokyo only to repeat the day of January 16th, thanks to Boeing, ANA, and the international date line. The FAA order was issued approximately 24 hours after ANA and JAL grounded their 787 fleets in Japan.
On January 16th, ANA flight 692 from Yamaguchi Ube (UBJ) to Tokyo-Haneda (HND), operated by a Boeing 787, made an emergency landing at Takamatsu (TAK) in west Japan after a battery pack in the forward electronics bay triggered an alarm. After landing at Takamatsu Airport, all passengers evacuated by emergency slides. In addition to the alarm prompting the emergency, there were numerous reports of a “burnt smell” on the aircraft.
Unfortunately, the culprit was the Lithium-Ion battery pack in the primary electronics bay. Boeing, along with US based National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators, arrived in Japan to look at the incident aircraft with ANA and the Japan Transport Safety Board.
The morning of Wednesday, January 16th, the first time around, I was in Tokyo and saw the ANA emergency landing on CNN as I returned to my hotel room atThe Capitol Hotel Tokyu.
Not only was I in Tokyo, but I flew the Boeing 787 Dreamliner from San Jose (SJC) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) just a few days prior and was re-packing my luggage to return to the United States on the 787 Dreamliner as it first hit television. A few minutes later I obtain news ANA is grounding their entire 787 fleet, a decision I later found ANA did not take lightly. JAL announced the grounding of their 787 Dreamliner fleet minutes later.
This day I discover Murphy’s Law is one of my globe trotting traveling companions; I was scheduled to leave Tokyo for San Jose, California, later in the afternoon. I was looking forward to my second long-haul flight on the 787 Dreamliner – ANA Flight NH 1076 to be precise. I had also been fighting a bug off on this trip and to top things off, I started feeling under the weather again with sinus pressure. The lower pressure on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner really does make a difference, but sadly, I won’t be flying on the Dreamliner as a result of its grounding.
NH 1076 – Tokyo-Narita to San Jose – Flight Cancelled
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner groundings sucker-punched both the Seattle and San Jose route from Narita, as well as Frankfurt from Haneda and countless Japanese domestic flights. While looking forward to the return on the Boeing 787, I was re-accommodated on ANA flight 8 -NH 08- to San Francisco operated by a Boeing 777-300ER.
The flight is also cancelled for Friday, as well as ANA flight 1075, the return flight from San Jose back into Tokyo. As to what this means for the new ANA San Jose – Tokyo flight will largely depend on how long the aircraft remains grounded.
ANA did a great job with the San Jose inaugural flight and it experienced a week of smooth operations. Unfortunately this latest battery problem does raise serious concerns which need to be addressed.
The Boeing 787 is just the right size for the San Jose market plus it’s a good aircraft to pioneer other new long and thin markets. As air carriers including ANA earn revenues to turn profits for their shareholders, the airlines are seeking quick resolution in a manner which places safety first.
Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s Grounded Worldwide
The Boeing 787 is now grounded across the globe, Boeing has temporarily stopped deliveries, and Boeing 787-8 operators are not happy since the planes need to be in the air to make money. Airline fleet planning is a 10 to 15 year process and air carriers depend on working planes as well as new deliveries. Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways, or ANA, is the largest Boeing 787 operator with 17 aircraft in their fleet.
As the largest operator, when ANA first took delivery, the 787 aircraft were used on domestic routes only and had low utilization according to Kohei Tsuji, Director of Network Planning at ANA. This was done purposely because of the new model type.
Soon after ANA took delivery of the first 787, over three years late, their competitor JAL received their initial 787 aircraft. In recent months 787 aircraft have been delivered to Air India, Ethiopian, LAN Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, QATAR Airways, and US based United Airlines.
At the time of the groundings, a total of 50 Boeing 787’s were in use worldwide and flying at higher utilization rates. Operating this clean sheet, new-build aircraft at high utilization is what caused these problems to finally surface, the battery problems being the most serious.
When asked about the electrical problems, the day prior to the 787 grounding, Mr. Tsuji said, “It is typical to have teething problems. The pneumatic systems were eliminated and all controls are electrical. Based on these points, sometimes there are (technical) problems.”
Mr. Tsuji, the Director of Network Planning at ANA, has an engineering background and was on-site at Boeing in Everett, Washington, as the initial Boeing 787 Dreamliner was built.
The batteries installed on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are Lithium-Ion batteries. The batteries have many advantages, in particular, their light weight makes them a good choice as far as rechargeable batteries available. You’ll find the Lithium-Ion battery is common in consumer electronics such as the iPhone, but you’ll also notice they can get quite hot easily.
The Lithium-Ion battery in your smart phone is small. The batteries used as part of the 787 Dreamliner power system are significantly larger. Lithium, which is used in the battery, also happens to be a highly reactive element which allows for a high energy density.
I located a 787 battery specifications sheet from GS Yuasa, the manufacturer of the 787 batteries, which indicates usage of a lithium cobalt oxide cathode. For appliances which require additional safety, such as the electric vehicle, typically a material such as lithium iron phosphate is used instead. There are several benefits, but the tradeoff is a lower capacity.
Lithium-Ion batteries have already been implicated in aircraft fires. A United Parcel Service (UPS) Boeing 747-400, traveling from Dubai to Cologne/Bonn caught fire from Lithium-Ion batteries being transported as cargo. Unfortunately, the aircraft crashed when attempting to return to Dubai. The pilots were Louisville based and known in the community here.
If you look back at history, the last aircraft the FAA grounded was the DC-10 in 1979. The FAA grounded the DC-10 after American Airlines flight 191 from Chicago to Los Angeles was involved in a catastrophic accident at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. The DC-10 eventually became a commercial success and was used for well over two decades across the globe with some DC-10’s still in operation as cargo jets. Furthermore, this past year is one of the safest on record.
In light of the FAA grounding, Jim McNerney, President and CEO of Boeing, said, “We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity. We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the traveling public of the 787’s safety and to return the airplanes to service.” McNerney added, “Boeing deeply regrets the impact that recent events have had on the operating schedules of our customers and the inconvenience to them and their passengers.”
As I departed Tokyo-Narita airport on the evening of Wednesday, January 16, I was able to locate two ANA long-haul Boeing 787-8 aircraft parked and saw a JAL 787-8 Dreamliner being towed to a maintenance area.
To look further into the problems with the Boeing 787, we’ve reached out to Henry H. Harteveldt, Travel Industry Analyst & Strategist, at Hudson Crossing, for his thoughts.
“The grounding of the 787 is a rare, extreme measure, but a prudent decision given the concerns regarding the plane’s batteries,” said Harteveldt.
As to the current, Harteveldt commented, “The challenge now is for the FAA and Boeing to keep both airlines and the public informed of progress in understanding the cause of the problem, and how they intend to solve the problem. I expect we’ll see the fixes implemented in stages. Initially, we’ll see tactical solutions, likely limiting the 787 to flights of under a certain number of miles, flight hours, distance from land, or a combination of these. Longer term, Boeing will have to determine whether to replace the batteries (and if so with what), add a fire suppression system where the batteries are located, change the location of the battery packs — or, again, a combination of these and perhaps more.”
When it comes to the solution, Harteveldt said, “A key element in the solution will be whether the end result materially affects the 787’s performance. If it means the 787 can’t operate all of its intended missions, or won’t be as fuel or cost-efficient, Boeing could see airlines cancel orders for the plane.”
This will also come at a cost to Boeing. Harteveldt continued, “As it stands, these changes will cost Boeing a significant amount of money. Airlines will demand compensation for lost 787 flights and further delays in the delivery of new aircraft. Boeing’s reputation will also take a hit, though long-term, I expect they’ll be fine.”
With respect to airline deliveries, there is the possibility of order cancellations if the problems cannot be solved in a timely manner. Leading up to the grounding of the Boeing 787-8, United, Qatar, and LAN, have reportedly experienced electrical problems, as well the JAL 787 which experienced a battery fire on the ground in the rear electronics bay where the auxiliary power unit (APU) is located.
The delivery flight of the third 787-8 Dreamliner to Qatar Airways experienced a generator failure. It is speculated this is similar to the generator problem which caused a United Airlines Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner to make an emergency landing in New Orleans on December, 4, 2012.
The Boeing 787-8 uses 20% less fuel than the older Boeing 767 and has a greater range making it perfect for long and thin routes. The Dreamliner provides innovative creature comforts to its passengers and airlines want to get the 787 flying as soon as possible. While the airlines will fly the 787, how will air travelers feel about stepping on-board?
“Travelers must feel confident about flying the 787, once it returns to service, or airlines obviously won’t earn the revenue and profits they expect. This won’t be easy. The FAA grounded DC-10s in 1979. People continued to have concerns about flying aboard the DC-10 into the mid-1980s. Boeing and its airline customers will need to do some work, once the 787 is returned to service and has been operating without incident for a while, to restore trust and credibility in the plane,” said Harteveldt.
My Take on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner
I had the opportunity to fly the 787 Dreamliner from San Jose (SJC) to Tokyo-Narita Airport (NRT), as pictured above, prior to the grounding. From a passenger experience, I absolutely loved the aircraft. The large windows, mood lighting, spacious cabin, and most importantly, the pressurization levels with humidity are all great assets.
Upon take-off, we quickly climbed out to 41,000 feet. The cabin was quiet, even quieter with noise cancelling headphones provided by ANA in Business Class. The flight took 10 hours and 43 minutes (Westbound) and I would prefer to take the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner over other aircraft once it returns to the sky.
As a result of the most recent incident, the Lithium-Ion battery system must be scrutinized. While many safety measures are in place, Boeing will need to come up with a solution to prevent battery problems as Lithium-Ion batteries can act funny at times. Henry Harteveldt, quoted above, has many great thoughts and is a well respected expert in the aviation industry. While I am not an expert when it comes to batteries, I do know the lithium cobalt oxide combination used in the 787 batteries is more apt to problems than other variations of the Lithium-Ion battery, but as previously discussed, weight is a significant trade-off.
Since the 787 Dreamliner has many great features, I believe it’ll be easier to get consumers back on board once the problems are addressed. However, once they start operating again, an initial problem may be time-sensitive consumers temporarily staying away.
When I took my flight out to Tokyo I was not expecting anything like this to happen, but as ANA initially grounded their fleet, this tells me the company is putting safety first. I met with ANA Maintenance and Engineering while in Tokyo and truly believe safety is of utmost importance with the carrier.
Hopefully Boeing will be able to correct the problems with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and ANA will be able to resume service to San Jose soon.
Disclosure: ANA covered my transportation to and from Tokyo.
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