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January 25, 2013

NTSB update on Boeing fire: where the investigation stands—good news and bad news

by: Mary F. Schiavo

At the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) press conference on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, in Washington, D.C., the Board chair announced what the investigation team has discovered so far with regard to the Boeing lithium ion battery fire that occurred at the gate on a Japan Airlines (JAL) 787 at Boston Logan Airport in early January. The Japan Transportation Safety Board (JTSB) is the lead agency investigating another lithium ion battery incident that occurred while an Al Nippon Airways (ANA) 787, loaded with passengers, was flying at 30,000 feet.

During the press conference, the NTSB confirmed that three dangerous events did occur, but it has not officially identified the cause of those occurrences. What happened in the Boston battery event is:

  1. There was, in fact, a fire.
  2. There was a thermal runaway event.
  3. There were short circuits.

The NTSB, at this preliminary stage, believes (but has not yet been able to prove) that there were manufacturing defects in the battery. The NTSB will continue to work with the JTSB and exchange information as each works to solve the two lithium battery problems on Japanese airliner 787s. So what does this mean for travelers who were hoping to fly on this luxurious, new aircraft? Well, they may not be flying on it anytime soon.

The first practical effect of this news means that Boeing will probably not be flying its 787s for a while. The NTSB must first determine a cause of the problem before there is any hope for Boeing of meeting the Emergency Airworthiness Directive (AD) requirements issued by the FAA, which grounded the 787. Boeing can’t do that until causes for the two battery accidents are identified.

The second practical effect is a bit more intriguing. In October 2007, when, by federal regulation, the FAA gave Boeing permission to use lithium ion batteries, the FAA issued special conditions with the approval—much like strings attached or fine print. The FAA special conditions included two interesting observations. First, the federal regulation notes that lithium ion batteries are significantly more susceptible to self-sustaining increases in temperature and pressure, known as thermal runaway. At its press conference, the NTSB confirmed that thermal runaway did, in fact, occur to the Boston plane batteries. The Federal Register warns that thermal runaway leads to fire or explosion—deadly events on an aircraft. The second and more obvious observation, that the aircraft did experience a fire, was also foretold in the Federal Register. The federal regulations were, indeed, clairvoyant. What was not so prescient was what the Federal Register told Boeing to do about it.

About the same time Boeing was given permission to use lithium ion batteries (also in October 2007) Cessna Aircraft Company was given permission to use lithium ion batteries in Cessna Citation jets, albeit in a more limited capacity than Boeing. In October 2011, a Cessna Citation jet, a small jet usually used for personal executive transportation and high-end, on-demand service such as by Executive Jet, experienced a lithium ion battery fire. In November 2011, the FAA issued an Airworthiness Directive giving Citation Operators just ten hours of service time to replace the lithium ion batteries with conventional batteries (NiCad or acid battery). The order to remove the lithium batteries did not apply to Boeing, however. Therefore, Boeing’s lithium ion batteries stayed in the 787.

The FAA reports 132 air incidents involving batteries between 1991 and 2012. Many of these incidents are battery fires caused by shipments of lithium ion batteries in devices such as computers or cell phones that are loaded onto the planes or by shipments of batteries transported by air. The first lithium ion battery fire is reported in the database as occurring on May 8, 1994.

A quick fix does not appear to be imminent because:

  1. These batteries are shown in the FAA database as having caused dozens of fires
  2. Fires and thermal runaways being known risks- a 2007 regulation instructed Boeing to guard against these risks and to take steps to prevent the same from happening
  3. Boeing assured the FAA that it had complied with that 2007 regulation, which it had to do to in order to get an airworthiness certificate to be allowed to fly the 787 and sell the plane for passenger service

Unless the NTSB can find the exact same manufacturing defect in both batteries and another FAA-approved supplier already exists, it seems the 787 will remain grounded for an unknown period. The NTSB and the JTSB will have to find the cause, not just what happened. Then, Boeing will have to readdress what it did back in 2007 to satisfy the federal regulation dealing with these risks because whatever Boeing did to safeguard against these risks did not achieve the desired result.

The FAA is also under scrutiny about its handling of the battery approval given the dire warnings that the Federal Register published on Oct. 11, 2007, about the Cessna jet battery fire and the 2011 forced removal, as well as the concerns raised by the Air Line Pilots’ Association about the dangers and hazards associated with a lithium battery event. The FAA approved the use of the lithium battery, despite knowing that fires, explosive events and thermal runaways are possible and even likely. However, instead of requiring Boeing to eliminate the possibility and/or risk of such events, the FAA approved an event containment system—a way to keep fires, overheating, explosions and flammable chemical leaks within the containment housing. It didn’t work. I suspect the Senate will be questioning the FAA about its actions very soon.

There is a saying in aviation accident investigation that one is an anomaly and two is a trend. These two battery accidents demonstrate why in aviation safety, as in most endeavors, history cannot be ignored. New planes and new technology have brought us ever-safer aviation, but known risks cannot be ignored. The NTSB will find the cause, and for safety’s sake, everyone has to wait on that mystery to be solved.