Remember back in 2013 when Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner was grounded because of concerns about the batteries catching fire and causing serious issues? Boeing eventually came up with a solution that involved a reinforced housing for the main Lithium-Ion battery. It is a containment system that includes a vent to allow fluids escaping an overheating battery to leave the plane. And, as far as we know, the usage of that system is rather limited. But it also turns out that we might not know all the incidents because the NTSB doesn’t necessarily track them.
Last month the pilots of a United Airlines 787-8 en route from Washington-Dulles to Paris-CDG reported a main battery overheat warning shortly before landing. Ship N26909 landed safely at CDG, with evidence that the liquid venting system worked. The return flight to San Francisco was canceled. Indeed, the plane spent nearly 4.5 days on the ground in Paris as a result of the incident. When the plane finally returned to the skies it was ferried to Denver via Dulles. Just over two days later it ferried to San Francisco before retuning to normal operations in the company’s route network.
In many ways this is a normal sequence of events. A maintenance incident occurs. The plane is pulled from service. It is inspected and/or repaired as needed. It returns to service. The abnormal part comes from the way the NTSB appears to be treating it. Aviation Herald reports that it is a “non-reportable event” so no investigation will occur. Boeing did provide confirmation of the incident as a courtesy to the organization.
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To be clear, I’m not worried about the design or reliability of the containment system. I believe the Boeing engineers that it will properly manage a battery overheat and prevent potential damage from spreading. I’d place the batteries in personal electronics that end up in the cargo hold (even though they’re not supposed to be there) as a much greater risk. At least we no longer have US authorities demanding that those electronics be placed in the cargo hold. We even have movement from US carriers (and IATA almost certain to follow suit shortly) prohibiting even more batteries from finding their way into checked bags.
But when we have an aircraft component that is known to be troublesome, so much so that it led to a fleet being grounded, it makes sense to me that maybe keeping track of how often that component is still failing, even when a containment system exists. If nothing else, wouldn’t it be useful to track how well the containment functions to “prove” that it is a sufficient approach to the solution in practice?? Seems the NTSB is not keen on requiring such tracking. And, while it is great that Boeing is volunteering the information it really isn’t quite the same thing.
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