UNSAFE AT ANY ALTITUDE?
More Turbulence for Boeing’s Nightmare Dreamliner 787
by Paul Hudson
In the 90 days that Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner has been back in the skies[1],
the aircraft has had flights canceled or been forced to make emergency
landings at least seven different times because of warning failures and
overheating.[2]  Just last month, a parked Ethiopian Airlines Dreamliner in London caught fire from a still undetermined electrical cause[3], and since last Thursday, two more 787 incidents were reported.
The
Dreamliner has been a nightmare for Boeing since its introduction,
mostly because of its choice of lighter lithium-ion batteries, the same
kind that power your cell phone and laptop. Until now, they have not
been used in large-scale industrial applications.
At
a recent hearing of the House Aviation subcommittee, Rep. Rick Larsen,
who represents the Washington state facility where the Dreamliner is
assembled, said Boeing had “pushed the envelope” with the Dreamliner[4].
That’s putting it mildly.
In just one year[5]
and with only 50 Dreamliners in use, between 100 to 150 of the
Dreamliner’s batteries failed and were returned to their Japanese
manufacturer as defective, The Seattle Times has reported[6]
That’s in addition to the two highly-publicized Dreamliner battery fires over 10 days in January, which led the FAA to ground the entire Dreamliner fleet — the first time it had done so for a large commercial aircraft since 1979. [7]  
At
the time, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood assured passengers
that the Dreamliner would not return to the skies “until we’re 1,000%
sure they are safe to fly[8].”
It took Washington less than 120 days to reach LaHood’s Biblical level of certitude.
Washington
based its decision on an engineering review that was mostly performed
by Boeing itself. In the Orwellian language of Washington, the FAA calls
the process “self-certification,” obscuring the dangerously close
relationship between Boeing and the FAA.
The
FAA cleared the Dreamliner for takeoff without completing its own
top-to-bottom review of the aircraft’s design, and even before the
National Transportation Safety Board was able to find out what caused
the battery fires in the first place.
Meanwhile,
an FAA blue-ribbon panel of industry experts has issued new safety
standards for lithium-ion batteries in commercial aircraft, but they
won’t be applied to the Dreamliner.  The government’s aviation safety
chief, Peggy Gilligan, explained to the subcommittee that “it’s very
difficult to go back and cause an existing product to be retested in
accordance with some new standard. [9]
Boeing’s
persistent problems with its lithium-ion batteries have caused its
European competitor, Airbus, to announce that it will reject their use
altogether for its new counterpart, the A350[10]
Concerned
Japanese pilots, citing 30 separate safety concerns with the
Dreamliner’s batteries, electrical and warning systems, have appealed to
Boeing to build an additional cockpit warning to give pilots more
substantive alerts if the batteries begin to overheat [11]. Those concerns too, have fallen on deaf ears.
Instead,
Boeing’s “fix” consists of additional insulation, a steel box to
contain whatever fires might break out, and a system to vent the fumes. 
This,
as Aviation subcommittee chair Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) assured
passengers, was the result of “more than 200,000 engineering hours” [12] and testing that the FAA’s Gilligan repeatedly called “robust.” [13]
The
Aviation subcommittee, flush with Boeing campaign cash, didn’t hear
about the 100 battery failures or the repeated Dreamliner diversions,
cancellations, and emergency landings. 
Neither
did it listen to flight crews, passenger groups or independent battery
experts like Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory professor Elton
Cairns, who says he is “shocked” by Boeing’s use of the batteries;
according to Dr. Cairns, the cells are “crammed too closely together and
feature an internal chemistry that’s far too volatile.”[14]
In
May, FlyersRights.org and the Aviation Consumer Action Project formally
petitioned the FAA to at least limit Boeing 787 flights until its
safety problems are resolved,[15] and considering the alarming number of safety incidents, the FAA should wait no longer.
If
Boeing wants to protect passengers — not to mention its reputation as
the world leader in aviation, it should replace the fire-prone,
Japanese-made lithium-ion batteries before tragedy strikes.
###


[1] The first commercial Boeing 787 flight after the grounding occurred on April 27, 2013http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2315725/Boeing-787-flies-Dreamliner-jet-returns-air-time-safety-scare.html

[2] May 4, 2013 – All Nippon Airways – electrical distribution panel overheated during test flighthttp://www.cnn.com/2013/05/17/travel/dreamliner-setback/index.html;
June 10 – ANA Fukoka-to-Tokyo flight cancelled after instruments showed left engine not functioning properlyhttp://news.sky.com/story/1102561/new-glitch-hits-boeing-787-dreamliners;
June 11 – Japan Airlines flight diverted because of a de-icing problem;
June 12 – All Nippon Airways flight canceled when engine failed to start; June 18 – Denver-to-Tokyo flight diverted to Seattle because of an oil filter indicator light; http://abcnews.go.com/Business/boeing-stock-falls-boeing-787-dreamliner-catches-fire/story?id=19651000#.UeRGz5UwP0A
June 20 – United London-to-Houston flight diverted to Newark because an indicator signaled low oilhttp://www.cnn.com/2013/06/23/travel/dreamliner-diverted
June 23 – United Houston-to-Denver flight forced to return due to false reading in the brake indicator lighthttp://abcnews.go.com/Business/dreamliner-hiccups-dampening-boeings-business/story?id=19472488#.UeRJkJUwP0A;
July 18, 2013 – Japan Air Lines Boston-to-Tokyo flight forced to return due to a problem with the fuel pump indicator, http://bostonherald.com/news_opinion/local_coverage/2013/07/fuel_pump_issue_sends_dreamliner_back_to_logan
[5] The first long-haul commercial flight of the 787 was on 1/21/12 “ANA 787 connection website”Ana.co.jp. Retrieved January 20, 2013.
[13]http://transportation.house.gov/hearing/lessons-learned-boeing-787-incidents, video testimony of Peggy Gilligan, multiple references

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