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Boeing Dreamliner's defect nightmare grows

Publication Date : 18-01-2013


Airline industry officials in Japan have expressed a sense of urgency over fresh trouble for the Boeing 787, dubbed as Dreamliner, after it was revealed that an emergency landing of a 787 passenger jet on Wednesday may have been caused by a faulty battery.

The incident was the latest in a string of troubles for the aircraft, which is dubbed the "electric airplane" for its cutting-edge technology.

The 787 operated by All Nippon Airways made an emergency landing at Takamatsu Airport after reports of smoke and an unusual smell during a flight from Yamaguchi Ube Airport in Ube, Yamaguchi Prefecture, to Haneda Airport in Tokyo.

The Japan Transport Safety Board declared the latest incident to be a "serious event" that could have caused an accident.

Safety fears widen

The latest problem is believed to have been caused by a defect in the aircraft's main battery, one of its core components. Many officials are taking the matter seriously, as the defect could be directly connected to the safety of all other 787s.

"A report of an 'unusual smell' needs to be taken seriously. We have to devise measures to improve the aircraft's safety," a senior official at the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry's Civil Aviation Bureau said.

A spate of problems have plagued the Dreamliner since January 8, when a small fire occurred in a battery of a Japan Airlines 787 parked at Boston's Logan International Airport, causing damage to components in a 50-centimetre radius. Other troubles, such as a crack in a cockpit window, are not uncommon in other airplane models.

Many bureau officials thus concluded that the only major incident for the Dreamliner was the one that involved the JAL 787 at Boston airport, and that the aircraft was safe.

As the fire started in the battery pack of an auxiliary power unit that is used mainly when the plane is grounded, some industry officials said they believe it is unlikely similar batteries on a 787 would catch fire during flight.

However, Wednesday's incident is believed to have been caused by a defect in a main battery that has the same product number as the one in the fire incident. Also, the problem occurred after the aircraft had nearly reached a cruising altitude of about 9,100 metres.

Indicators in the plane's cockpit reportedly showed the presence of smoke in the aircraft's electrical room, where the main battery is located, while some passengers reported a burning smell. Considering these facts, it is not hard to imagine that such trouble could have caused a fire in the sky.

The 'electric airplane'

The latest incident is especially critical for the Dreamliner because it involved the main battery. The 787 sets itself apart from other airplane models with an advanced electrical system at the core of its operations.

As many of the aircraft's devices are electrically powered, the 787 is much more reliant on electrical components compared with other models, leading it to be dubbed an "electric airplane."

The plane uses lithium ion cells produced by Kyoto-based GS Yuasa Corp., which are compact and lightweight but provide a large electric current. However, as the battery can easily heat up and catch fire during abnormal conditions, it is enclosed in a container for safety.

The 787 is equipped with four batteries of this kind, including a main cell. Important equipment such as the cabin pressurisation system, which is used to create a safe and comfortable environment for passengers and crew at high altitudes, as well as a brake system, are all electrically powered.

As the 787 uses electricity generated by its engines during flight, its operation would not be immediately affected if these batteries became unusable.

However, concerning the latest problem with the main battery, an official at the bureau said, "If that defect was caused by a faulty electrical system, which could have resulted in a fire, this would be a critical problem."

"We'll start by examining the aircraft's battery, where the problem is believed to have originated," Hideyo Kosugi, a senior Japan Transport Safety Board aircraft accident investigator, said at Takamatsu Airport on Wednesday night.

A full investigation into the incident was scheduled to start yesterday, he added.


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