FAA Grounds Boeing 787s. Now What?

Hours after Japanese carriers voluntarily removed their 787s from service, the FAA has stepped in and ordered the grounding of all U.S. 787s as well. What does this mean for the future of Boeing’s showcase jetliner?


UPDATE: February 20, 2013

Everybody ought to read James Surowieki’s provocative article in the February 4th issue of the New Yorker. Among his excellent points is one that I neglected to make myself — that the reason we shouldn’t necessarily compare the 787’s troubles to those of predecessors like the Comet or the DC-10, is that the safety standards of those eras no longer apply. We live in a different age now, with higher standards and higher expectations or safety and reliability. You can view the article here.


UPDATE: January 23, 2013

On Wednesday, January 16th, All Nippon Airways flight 692, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner bound from the western Japan city of Yamaguchi to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, with 137 people aboard, diverted to Takamatsu after smoke was reported in the cockpit. Five people were injured in the ensuring evacuation on an airport taxiway. According to Japanese news reports, the smoke was caused by a battery fire in the plane’s forward electronics bay.

This was the latest in a series of battery-related smoke and fire incidents to strike Boeing’s beleaguered 787 — a plane that has been in service for only a little more than a year. In response, Japanese carriers All Nippon and Japan Airlines voluntarily removed their 787s from service. Hours later, the FAA ordered all U.S.-registered 787s grounded as well. They are yet to return to service.

Early-on glitches are not unusual when an aircraft is introduced. All new models have their teething problems. Most are minor, if expensive nuisances (engine problems that plagued the first 747s, for example). Others are more serious. In 2010, an uncontained engine failure involving a Qantas A380 raised important questions about some the plane’s systems redundancies. The poorly designed cargo door locking mechanism on the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 contributed to one of the worst aviation disasters in history — the horrific crash of a THY Turkish Airlines flight outside Paris in 1974. And years earlier, the world’s first commercial jet, the de Havilland Comet, was grounded after stress fractures caused three catastrophic inflight breakups.

The 787 had not yet joined the likes of the Comet or the DC-10, but things were clearly trending in a bad direction.

The ANA fire was the fourth serious incident stemming from a malfunction of one of the plane’s lithium-ion batteries, which are found in both the forward and aft underfloor electronics bays. The first two resulted in emergency landings — one during a pre-delivery test flight in 2010; the other two months ago by a United 787 in New Orleans. Then, on January 7th, a fire broke out on a Japan Airlines (JAL) 787 parked at the gate at Boston’s Logan International Airport. In the JAL incident, the fire was in the aft bay, and involved the battery used to start the jet’s auxiliary power unit, or APU. (The APU is a small turbine engine used to supply power when the engines aren’t running. All commercial jets have APUs, and they are normally located in a compartment beneath the tail.) A day later, mechanics at United found a defective wire bundle connected to the APU battery of a 787 while performing an inspection prompted by the Boston incident.

Finally, Wednesday’s ANA incident pushed things over the line.

In each instance, the fires occurred in sealed, isolated compartments and did not spread to other areas of the plane. Nevertheless, any onboard fire is dangerous, and the decision to cease all flying, however unfortunate, was the correct course of action.

It remains to be seen how long the planes will be grounded, how much the fixes will cost, and what exactly needs to be done. There will be much discussion regarding Boeing’s decision to rely on powerful but potentially unstable lithium-ion batteries, and we can expect one or more emergency Airworthiness Directives, as they’re known, issued from the FAA, mandating changes to the plane’s batteries, and perhaps to the fire-protection aspects of its electronics compartments.

Lithium-ion batteries, similar versions of which power most personal computers, are smaller and lighter than traditional batteries, but have a known propensity for hazardous “thermal runaway” conditions that can result in fires. The FAA recently banned the carriage of lithium batteries in passenger luggage. In 2006, a UPS cargo freighter made an emergency landing in Philadelphia after a shipment of lithium batteries caught fire in the cargo compartment. The plane was destroyed. And last year, the fatal crash of a UPS 747 near Dubai is believed to have been caused by a large shipment of lithium batteries that ignited during flight. (The halon extinguishing systems used in the cargo compartments of commercial planes has only limited effectiveness against these fires.)

The 787 grounding call wasn’t one the FAA wanted to make, but neither is such a move unprecedented. It happened with the Comet in the 1950s, and in 1979 with the DC-10. Was it an easy thing to do? No. Was it the right and prudent thing to do? Yes.

There’s both a good and bad to this, I suppose.

The bad is evident enough: this is a huge and costly black eye for Boeing and its customers. But it could be a lot worse. The good is that the grounding came preemptively, before anybody was seriously hurt or killed. It’s also helpful that the problem, as we understand it thus far, is eminently fixable. Serious as a battery fire might be, this isn’t a structural defect that’ll wind up costing billions. Leading up to the 787’s launch, all of the talk was focused on the uniqueness of plane’s carbon-fiber construction. Any serious failure of that could have doomed the entire 787 project to failure, and possibly dragged all of Boeing down with it. But to this point, composites have been a nonexistent issue. These other problems are nothing by comparison, and a year from now I suspect all of this will be forgotten.

And here’s hoping the media can keep its cool once the plane is up and flying again — as should be the case in relatively short order. For better and worse, we can expect 787s everywhere to be under intense scrutiny. That’s beneficial for obvious reasons, but also potentially troubling, because the media, which goes bonkers over almost anything involving airplanes, aided and empowered by the tools of our age — i.e. Twitter, YouTube, and blogs not unlike my own — is liable to sensationalize even the most minor malfunctions, including those that have nothing to do with the plane’s engineering.

This will be an interesting story to follow, but be cautious of hype and hysteria.


For additional details on this developing story, see Christine Negroni’s coverage here.

And for a first-hand account of my own recent ride on a 787, see this story.


Japan Airlines 787 after battery fire at Boston-Logan. (Stephan Savoia/AP)



— United Airlines is the only U.S. operator of the 787. Others are All Nippon Airways (ANA), Japan Airlines (JAL), Air India, Poland’s LOT, Ethiopian Airlines, LAN of Chile, and Qatar Airways.

— Aircraft avionics and electronics compartments usually have temperature or smoke detectors, but full-on extinguishing systems are limited to engines, APU, cargo compartments, and in some cases the main landing gear bay. Each of these is equipped with one or more “fire bottles,” as pilots call them — pressurized spherical tanks containing a powerful extinguishing agent, usually Halon.

— That Turkish DC-10 crash near Paris in ’74 ranks fourth deadliest of all time, with 346 fatalities. Following the accident, McDonnell Douglas redesigned the cargo door locking system.


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50 Responses to “FAA Grounds Boeing 787s. Now What?”
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  1. Gene says:

    Elon Musk, the guy who created Tesla Motors and SpaceX, and who probably knows more about using Li-ion batteries than anyone else, says that the batteries used on the Dreamliner are “inherently unsafe.”


  2. toughluck says:

    My 2c worth:
    1. Li-Ion battery fires are not easily extinguishable. When they overheat and burn, they supply their own fuel and a little oxidizer, which means they will burn until the fuel is used up. Halon does little to extinguish the fire — best it does is remove atmospheric oxygen, lowering the rate at which the battery burns, but does not extinguish it. Two best strategies to combat these fires: 1) Let it burn out, making sure the fire doesn’t spread elsewhere; 2) Cool it down as much as possible.
    2. As much as electric engineers would like them to be different, batteries, especially Lithium, are not black boxes that supply electric power to their stated limits. Aside from simplest single-cell devices that power phones, for example, all other are multi-cell, starting with 3-, 6- and 9-cell jobs in laptops, and culminating with hundreds of cells in industrial, automotive and aerospace applications. Enter manufacturing variation, and simple chemistry differences, and local overcharging or overdrawing will easily happen, leading to overheating and possible fires. Worse still, these may not be catastrophic, at least not at first, but they will accumulate — porous metal in the electrodes will be subject to high currents, subsequent high temperature and reflow, turning it into a solid, highly conductive wire, further limiting effectiveness, and exposing to ever more overcharging and overdrawing. The wire will, at some point, conduct too high current, letting temperature rise too much, leading to a fire.
    Often, battery management systems will be more complex and covered by more patents than the batteries themselves. Alas, too many electric engineers live by the myth that batteries are simple devices which don’t need any consideration.

  3. Jim Wattengel says:

    Here is a New Yorker articla about the 787


    This article points out an underlying cultural change at Boeing that may have contributed to the 787 troubles.


    In my opinion consolidation of the Aircraft industry (as well as the Airline) are not good things.

    Boeing really began going downhill when they moved the Corporate Headquarters to Chicago.

  4. Geoff G. says:

    Great article. Just curious – What happens to all the pilots who are type-rated on the 787? Are they all grounded too, and, by extension, not earning any money? Do the pilots’ unions have contingencies for this?

  5. Patrick, as a member of the media here in Canada, I make a conscious effort to avoid sensationalism in a subject that others know far more about (yourself, in this case). For example, I pluralize “pilot” when writing of exploits in the cockpit and I have you to thank for that. But I’m puzzled. To avoid the hype, I referred to the landings you describe above as “unscheduled” as opposed to “emergency” — just to be on the safe side because the initial reports were vague on whether the aircraft was in danger of a crash. And I argued with my colleagues over the wording. Yet, you use “emergency” in your column above. Was I wrong, and is there a criteria you would recommend? Thanks for your always excellent column, and — incidentally — curing my fear of flying!


    • Patrick says:

      It means a lot to me that somebody in the media might actually be listening, and I really appreciate that you make those efforts.

      In this case, these were legitimate emergency landings. Unless I’m mistaken, a formal emergency had been declared by the captain in both the ANA earlier United incidents.

      That’s not to say the planes were in immediate danger of crashing, but any onboard fire or smoke, especially when its origins aren’t known for certain and cannot be accessed, is serious.

      • Tim says:

        Patrick, would you say it might help the media if the terminology included more ways to differentiate the types of emergency landing?

  6. Fred Sanderson says:

    Its a completely different electrical system and works on 230V instead of 115. 787 has two generators per engine, two APU’s both with two gens, plus the RAT which also has two generators.

    I agree with the comments others are making about ETOPS.

  7. Michael says:

    How many batteries does the 787 have? Normal airplanes have 2 or 3, but I’m guessing since everything is electric on this aircraft there is more than normal for total engine failure situations. Is there a ram air turbine for backup? The obvious fix is Nickel Cadmium batteries but not if there’s 20 batteries, the weight might knock the mileage down.

  8. Fabio says:

    Not sure about the interaction bewteen composite material, design and… batteries. The 787 is hungry for electricity and needs lots more power than other planes. Wired has a quite intersting article on its Autopia section Quite interesting reading.

  9. Reza Gorji says:

    While I understand the role of the APU, how did it contribute to the problems experienced when inflight emergencies occurred? I am obviously not a pilot and thought the APU was used only on land before the main engines come to life.

    Thank you.

  10. I just know fellow iDiots when I read them!

    Sent from Steve Jobs’ Galaxy S IV

    PS: Sorry, great article as always Patrick! 🙂

    Best regards.

  11. Jim Houghton says:

    Don’t forget the Lockheed Electra and the discovery of metal fatigue.

    • Jim Wattengel says:

      The Electra crashes, of course should be included in the list; But they were NOT caused by metal fatigue.

      The structural failures of the Electra wings were provoked when the the vibrations from the engines/props at a very specific power/prop setting, and specific flight conditions caused an un-damped resonance in the wing structure. The wings literally flapped-off.

      The resonance was possible because the natural frequency of the wing structure was altered by a broken faulty weld in one of the engine mount structures.

      The above explanation is extremely oversimplified but my point is that it was NOT simple metal fatigue. It was a very complicated series of conditions that had to be present for the occur for wing failure to occur.

  12. Bob Irwin says:

    I wonder where those lithium batteries were made. China?

  13. Marcio Pinheiro says:

    Can you imagine exchanging all this batteries in all planes… But if it has to be done, it has to be done.

  14. Msconduct says:

    I was hoping you’d weigh on on this, especially as Air New Zealand has ordered ten 787s. Good to see a level-headed evaluation.

  15. Ranzabar says:

    Well the A-380 was a problem child when it started flying. Of this the 787 takes new tech to a greater level, with unprecedented outsourcing of components too.

    Maybe Boeing bit of a little to much this time? Hope they factored in the downtime lawsuits into their business model…..hahaha. Nah.

  16. Barry says:

    Just to clarify the APU on the 787 does not provide bleed air. The engines on the 787 have starter-generators and no pneumatic system.

  17. Wallaby says:

    More concerning is what does this mean for the 787s ETOPS certification? Even after the grounding is lifted, I can’t see any way for the FAA to avoid downgrading the ETOPS certification until the 787 accumulates more actual flight time. Which, given the types of routes the plane is expected to fly, could be a major blow.

    • Tim says:

      It depends what they downgrade it to, doesn’t it? I mean, I don’t see any way they can maintain a 180-minute ETOPS rating, but maintaining 120 minutes isn’t too much of a burden except on trans-Pacific flights, and all you have to do to keep both an efficient flight time and a trans-Pacific route is to fly from Chicago instead of from California.

  18. Charles says:

    I reckon that the Lithium-Ion battery problem is solvable by reverting to normal FAA approved batteries which will weigh more and take up more space.

    I do however predict that the carbon fiber construction will in future create a problem of its own due to the fact that unlike other aircraft which are built in sections which can be replaced, the 787 is built ‘in one piece’ – which is very difficult, lengthy and costly to repair and replace in case of local damage.

    I’m not convinced that Boeing thought that one well through from an engineers point of view.

  19. prasadk says:

    Air India also flies the Dreamliner and as of today the DGCA (India’s version of the FAA) has grounded that fleet too.

  20. Simon says:

    As always, I appreciate your calm and reasonable approach, Patrick.

    Just let me point out that one has to be careful when talking about “Li batteries”. The “Li battery” in iPads or in many notebooks (including your MacBook Air) is actually a Li-polymer battery. The battery for the 787-8’s APU is a Li-ion battery. I’m not sure if the Li batteries in UPS freighter incidents were lio-ion or Li-polymer. In any event, Li-polymer and Li-ion batteries are rather different beasts and pose different safety issues.

    • Patrick says:

      Thanks for clarifying. I’ve made a couple of tweaks to the text that should take care of any confusion.

      How did you know I used a Macbook Air?

      • Simon says:

        As a close follower I pay attention to your pictures. 😉

      • Paul J says:

        Just wanted to say thanks for an insightful and well-balanced piece on the Dreamliner. Hoping mainstream media shows some restraint as well, but prepared for disappointment. Airplane emergencies, real or otherwise, generate Nielsen ratings.

  21. miskidomleka says:

    LOT cancelled today’s flight of their Dreamliner from Chicago to Warsaw.

  22. Rick O'Leary says:

    It absolutely WAS a ridiculous statement. Their iPhones and iPads… and other “ridiculous” hand-held gadgets.

    And your “proof” of this.


  23. HmmCouldBe says:

    Keep in mind this is an aircraft built by a new generation of young people who are preoccupied with their iPhones, iPods, and other ridiculous hand-held electronic gadgets.

    Years ago safe passenger planes were assembled by truly skilled workers who concentrated 100% on their work, and took pride in a job well done.

    • BlastTyrant says:

      Absolutely ridiculous statement.

    • Fry says:

      Wow. “Damn you kids, get off my lawn!”

    • Gene says:

      As someone who has been inspecting the Boeing widebody plant for over twenty years, this may be the funniest comment I’ve read recently.

    • Rock says:

      Years ago, managers were promoted from within and work was done in house for fair wages. Do you know what it’s like to work for any modern company? No one has a big picture idea of whats going on. One step forward, two steps backward, and finish the job today at all costs. This is the result of executive greed. A fact of modern business.

    • Fred Sanderson says:

      Indeed indeed. Well said my friend.

      Quite why we need all this electrical power remains a mystery. Removing the ridiculous passenger entertainment system will not only decrease aircraft weight but will also decrease electrical power requirements.

      Installing Lithium battery packs onto an aircraft avionics rack that has no Halon fire extinguisher is frankly grossly irresponsible. The FAA know this; which is why they issued the Airworthiness Directive.

      Ni-cad batteries would be a sensible thing to consider. Installing a proper hydraulic system would be another. 787 has no bleed air system, another very large and bold move. The lack of these mechanical critical systems and the transition towards the all electric aircraft is perhaps the principal reason why 787 is grounded .Boeing design engineers and the “electronic wizz kids” are slowly waking up the reality of the situation.

      787 is ETOPS certified 300 minutes( 5 hrs) for large oceanic crossings and here we are discussing overheating, smoke and fires within its equipment bays… on a new aircraft that has been in service for less than 12 months. What happens when the battery overheats at 45 degrees west over Greenland at 02.00 UTC?

      Around the Globe much figure drumming and pondering will be taking place around airline boardroom tables.

  24. Rod says:

    Tim: “Regarding the Turkish DC-10 problem, there was prewarning with the American DC-10 that made a successful emergency landing in Detroit.”

    (As I recall) after depositing an occupied coffin it was carrying as freight in someone’s back yard in southern Ontario.

    • Tim says:

      Yes. And several seats (which thankfully had not been occupied) in a different back yard, and the cargo door somewhere a little further back on the flight path.

  25. JoeyH says:

    I’m not sure of the wisdom of using LiIon batteries on aircraft.

  26. L K Sherman says:

    It sounds like the battery short-circuited and overheated. This is a known problem with lithium-ion batteries and is usually the result of a manufacturing problem (there have been at least a couple of mass cell-phone/laptop battery recalls because of this).

    In short, it’s probably not a design flaw in the 787 per se, unless there’s more to the “malfunction” than implied. The facts as given wouldn’t keep me from flying on a 787.

    • Tim says:

      The facts only keep me from flying on a 787 because of the inherent…ah…”brilliance” involved in installing a lithium-ion battery on a plane in a compartment without a fire bottle. Yes, most lithium-ion batteries are safe, but they’re enough of a fire risk that you shouldn’t put one on a plane unless you have a way to put out a possible fire from it. Now, I don’t know if that “brilliance” is on JAL or Boeing, but it’s not that complicated a fix.

      The real fact that keeps me from flying on a 787 is the relatively small size of my bank account. 🙂

    • Roger Wolff says:

      Lithium batteries can start to burn in a few ways. As you say, shorting is one of them. But overcharging is another one.

      And if the balancing circuit isn’t perfect, over-discharging them will also cause them to over-charge on the next charging cycle.

      But if you treat your lipo batteries well, they can last really long and perform well.

      The alternative is lead-acid batteries. Those are made of lead, and lead is known for one thing: It’s heavy.

  27. Tim says:

    Regarding the Turkish DC-10 problem, there was prewarning with the American DC-10 that made a successful emergency landing in Detroit.

    I agree with Elizabeth (#2). It’s not that I’m particularly worried about all the glitches, but I’d rather they get figured out before I start flying on the 787.

  28. Elizabeth Matheson says:

    I’m not so crazy about the 787. The day after the incident you mention in your article, another 787 at Logan had fuel leaking apparently. Another pilot spotted the problem and notified ATC, who, in turn, notified the pilot who aborted takeoff. For now, I won’t fly the 787. Let them work out the glitches first!

  29. Gene says:

    I see an AD, voluntary or not, to replace those Li-ion batteries coming.