IT was an aircraft that many predicted would be a game changer. The Dreamliner ushered in a new era of lighter more fuel-efficient commercial airplanes.
It is 20 per cent more fuel efficient than a comparable mid-size wide body plane. If the plane lives up to that promise, it will be a huge benefit to airlines that are struggling with high jet-fuel prices. Could 20 per cent savings in fuel be the difference between an airline turning a profit and losing money?
While many airlines made record orders for the aircraft that was positioned to change the face of air travel, suddenly, disaster struck as the virtually all the aircraft type developed battery problem.
This forced the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to immediately ground all B787 airplanes that were affected by the problem. Even the ones that were not affected were equally grounded.
The Dreamliner turned into a nightmare for Boeing and the airlines that paid a list price of more than $200 million per airplane. It suffered problems typical for new planes, ranging from brake malfunctions to computer glitches.
On January 16, the FAA grounded the fleet after the battery on a 787 that had just landed in Boston caught fire and another produced a fault that forced an emergency landing by an All Nippon Airways flight bound for Tokyo, with the passengers evacuating via inflatable slides.
Boeing’s biggest rival, Airbus, in February this year dropped lithium-ion batteries of the type that forced the grounding of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and will use traditional nickel-cadmium batteries in its crucially important next passenger jet, the A350.
The European planemaker said recently it had taken the decision to adopt the batteries used on existing models in order to prevent delays in the A350’s entry to service next year, amid uncertainty over the potential fallout of Boeing’s problems.
The move came a week after it was reported that Airbus was considering such a move to limit the risks surrounding the development of its own $US15 billion airliner.
“We want to mature the lithium-ion technology but we are making this decision today to protect the A350’s entry-into-service schedule,” an Airbus spokeswoman said.
Both groups insist the new battery technology is safe and Airbus took pains to avoid presenting its decision as a swipe against its US rival as they boast a common stand on safety.
But industry executives, insurance companies and safety officials have said questions are piling up over the “maturity” or predictability of lithium-ion technology, as United States (U.S.) and Japanese investigators struggle to find the cause of incidents that led to the Boeing’s grounding crisis.
These included a fire on board a parked 787 in Boston and an in-flight problem on another plane in Japan.
The A350 is due to enter service in the second half of 2014 compared with an initial target of 2012 when it was launched as Europe’s answer to the lightweight 787 Dreamliner.
The industry’s fear is that the failure to identify the “root cause” of the burning battery incidents leaves too much uncertainty over whether regulators will certify planes, when they include the powerful but temperamental power packs.
The Dreamliner was born out of the ashes of the Sonic Cruiser, a plane that was planned to fly near the speed of sound with twice as many passengers as the Concorde, until airlines squelched the idea, saying they couldn’t afford to pay for that luxury in the post-9/11 era.
Boeing turned its sights to fuel efficiency – a worthwhile goal but not a particularly enthralling one – which drove nearly every design decision. Boeing decided to use carbon-fiber composites – essentially plastic – for the body and wings, and to reserve titanium and other heavy metals for the landing gear, engines, and some small parts.
The 787’s problems had been compounded by its hi-tech design. It is the largest passenger plane to make such extensive use of lithium ion batteries, which are lighter and can hold more energy than other types of batteries. The batteries, however, have also proved volatile and caused fires in smaller planes, cars, computers and mobile devices.
The return of the airline last week is no means the end of the story. Now it has permission to operate test flights. These will be lengthy and thorough and the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board will have to be 100 percent confident the fix is sufficient before it allows the aircraft to fly again commercially,” said industry expert,
“This could still take a month or two, depending on how easy the fix can be applied to existing aircraft as well as planes already on the production line.”
For now, there are 50 grounded Dreamliner wide bodies that were flying worldwide. Boeing has orders for several hundred more, making the issue a top priority given all the investment that’s been put into the model’s development.