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Averting nightmares for passengers
Publication Date : 04-02-2013
Even if they turn out to be only teething troubles, fire-prone batteries picked by Boeing for the Dreamliner have dented passenger confidence in how safety is monitored when new aircraft are produced. Investigators have yet to reassure travellers that there is no potential risk, as a probe for more than two weeks has failed to pinpoint why lithium-ion power sources caught fire on board two Japanese-flown airliners. The longer the delay in discovering and fixing the problem, the greater the overall cost to the industry.
Questions that have arisen focus on the "thermal runaway" hazards of packing large lithium-ion cells too closely together, although engineers in recent years have concluded that the technology was safe. The battery manufacturer should have learnt the lesson of lithium-ion powered laptop computers bursting into flames several years ago and done more to study safety issues. If indeed there were grounds for scrutinising the design more closely, safety regulators should have been more circumspect too.
No less an expert than Elon Musk, who developed fire-proof lithium-ion for his Tesla electric roadsters and SpaceX transporters, has declared the Dreamliner batteries "inherently unsafe". He has offered to help Boeing solve the problem, if only to help protect lithium-ion's credibility.
The Dreamliner depends so much on electrical systems and composite aero- structures for weight and fuel saving and other advantages that it represents a radical departure in aircraft design and architecture. This should have prompted a higher state of vigilance. If the Airbus A-380, which relies on more thoroughly tested applications, had problems when it first entered service, it is not unexpected that the 787 should also have a few "running-in" issues. But where safety is concerned, there should be no compromise, of course.
The high proportion - 70 per cent - of the airliner's components Boeing had outsourced to 900 sub-contractors for production is also a matter of concern. Such a trend calls for rigorous quality tracking and control systems. A related question is whether competitive pressures made Boeing too eager to adopt new technological innovations in an attempt to stay ahead of Airbus and others.
The push to launch new products as soon as possible is normal but this should be tempered by reliability concerns. The significant participation of Japanese part manufacturers in the project and Japanese airlines' eagerness to be the first to fly the aircraft might have contributed to the tight launch deadline. The industry should not forget that the latest is greatest only if it's among the safest too - which is what matters most to fliers.