The Boeing 787 Dreamliner could be back in the skies even if the exact cause of its two battery meltdowns remains unknown, according to officials close to the situation.
Since the two scares grounded the entire fleet of planes, experts from Boeing, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Transportation Safety Board have been working around the clock to pinpoint what caused the batteries to trigger two emergencies—a fire aboard a 787 at the gate in Boston and a smoking battery aboard a 787 in the air over Japan. But it’s become clear that a definitive answer remains elusive.
Kelly Nantel, a spokesperson for the NTSB, wrote in an email: “The decision to allow the 787 fleet to return to flight will be made by the FAA. The NTSB continues to investigate the cause of the January 7 fire [in Boston] and to share our findings with both the FAA and Boeing.”
And FAA officials believe they can cite a precedent for allowing an airplane to fly while investigators are still trying to figure out what went wrong, according to sources within the agency. Remarkably, they use the example of one of the deadliest crashes in U.S. aviation history: TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 that exploded in the air off Long Island, New York, in 1996, killing all 230 people on board.
After a long and painstaking investigation into that disaster, the NTSB established that the 747 had been blown apart not by a bomb or missile, as had originally been feared, but by an explosion in its center fuel tank. The 12,890-gallon tank had only 50 gallons of fuel in it and investigators concluded that fuel vapors mixing with oxygen in the vacant space above the fuel had been ignited by an electrical short circuit.
The exact ignition source was never determined, and probably never will be. Since the crash the FAA has issued more than 200 directives aimed at preventing a similar disaster, including a system the agency itself developed in which oxygen in a tank is replaced with non-inflammable nitrogen gas. (The 747 fleet was never grounded as a result of the TWA crash.)
Similarly, agency experts now believe, even if the NTSB investigation into the Dreamliner’s batteries is prolonged or inconclusive, changes being proposed to its batteries and electrical system would be enough to ensure its safety. To be sure, if regulators do recertify the 787 on this basis, they are not asserting that the batteries would be fail-safe—simply that any future failures would be isolated and contained without impacting the airplane’s critical systems.
John Goglia, a former NTSB official and now an authority on aviation safety with a deep knowledge of the TWA investigation, says that regulators would need to be assured that there was no risk that a problem originating with the batteries could escalate into a catastrophic failure. “Given that, this kind of solution makes sense,” he said.
In fact, agency experts argue that the fixes that will be made by Boeing could lead to the battery technology involved, lithium-ion, being judged much safer for use in airplanes. They point out that it has been 10 years since the original testing and certification of the batteries and that much more has been learned about how they behave in regular airline service—experience that will be reflected in the redesign of the batteries themselves, in the hardening of the boxes containing them, and in backup systems that monitor them.
Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel told The Daily Beast: “We’re encouraged by the progress being made to resolve the issue and return the 787 to flight.”
Boeing has been adamant that it will not abandon lithium-ion technology—even though its rival is doing so. Airbus is reverting to conventional, proven nickel-cadmium batteries for its competitor to the 787, the A350, due to fly for the first time this summer. Another former NTSB investigator, Gene Doub, takes issue with Boeing’s decision. He told The Daily Beast: “Airbus did the right thing. In the case of the 787 they have a major problem that they can’t really define. What are they going to do, go ahead and hope for the best?”
The 787 is the singlemost advanced and complex machine ever designed for everyday use by the public. The pressure on Boeing to find a fix is immense. Airlines due to receive Dreamliners this year are juggling their fleets to plug gaps left where the 787 was due to appear. United Airlines, the only U.S. airline flying the plane before it was grounded, has postponed plans to introduce direct flights between Denver and Tokyo until at least May. In addition to the several dozen 787s already delivered to airlines but grounded, a logjam of new 787s at Boeing plants is building up—and all of them will have to wait to be modified once the FAA approves changes. One estimate puts the cost to Boeing of the grounding at $1 billion.
In the end, the FAA answers to Ray LaHood, secretary of transportation, and LaHood is on record saying that the 787 will not fly again until he’s satisfied that it’s “1,000 percent safe.” Last week, when Boeing executives presented their ideas for fixing the problems to the FAA in Washington, LaHood sent his deputy, John Porcari, to sit in on the meeting—a highly unusual step.
One more thing. Last year, the FAA proposed a fine of $13.6 million on Boeing, the second-largest penalty ever. The reason? Boeing had failed to meet a deadline to implement explosion-prevention devices in 747s, directly related to the loss of TWA 800.