Battery Problems on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner Are Back

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Apparently, Boeing (NYSE:BA) has not solved the problems that plagued the Dreamliner 787’s lithium-ion battery earlier this year. During a Friday flight from Helsinki to Tokyo, one of Japan Airlines Co.’s (JALFQ.PK) Dreamliners experienced battery problems. In a update posted to the carrier’s website, Japan Airlines, known as JAL, explained that the battery had not begun to smoke or show other signs of overheating, but a cockpit indicator did show a problem with the battery connected to the Dreamliner’s auxiliary power unit during the flight. “However, the voltage and electrical current were within normal range and there was no effect on the remainder of the flight,” the airline added. The battery was removed and inspections are ongoing.

After two battery meltdowns in January, regulators forced a four-month, worldwide grounding of the 787 Dreamliner — the first such global grounding in 30 years. Boeing engineers and other industry experts redesigned the system so that the battery cells would be separated and insulated, which put the plane back in the sky in April. JAL kept its fleet of Dreamliners grounded until May 31. In a letter dated June 1, President Yoshiharu Ueki apologized for the inconvenience the flight suspensions caused travelers, noting that JAL had “fully” cooperated with United States and Japanese government investigative agencies and worked with Boeing and aviation authorities to “preclude a similar occurrence in the future and provide customers with the highest aviation safety standards.”

A JAL Dreamliner that landed in Boston experienced the first meltdown and the second incident occurred on plane operated by JAL-rival All Nippon Airways, which resulted in an emergency landing.

But more technical issues followed. A jet operated by United Continental (NYSE:UAL) was forced to make an emergency landing in Houston; an Ethiopian Airlines 787 caught fire at Heathrow Airport because of a faulty emergency beacon; a faulty fuel pump indicator and an oil level indicator caused United flights to be diverted last summer; and Norwegian Air Shuttle, the third-largest budget airline in Europe, was forced to rely on Boeing rival, European Aerospace-owned (EADSY.PK) Airbus, when problems with an electrical system, a hydraulic pump, and a brake indicator kept its fleet of 787s grounded.

Many of the mechanical malfunctions the 787 jets have experienced are rooted in the very innovations that made the plane unique. The Dreamliner’s computer and electrical systems, like the plane’s batteries, depend on technologies that have not been used before in jets. Solid-state components are a key part of the plane’s powerful electrical and computer systems that Boeing used in place of many traditional mechanical parts and wiring to make the Dreamliner lighter and burn less fuel. Still, confidence in the Dreamliner appears to be the rule, not the exception, in the airline industry.

One of the Dreamliner’s key selling points, which has likely earned it much favor from airline executives, is that it consumes approximately 20 percent less fuel than other aircraft of the same size. Fuel is an enormous share of costs for airlines, and fuel costs have increased dramatically recently. The success of the Dreamliner is critical for the company moving forward. Airline traffic is still growing in pretty much every corner of the world, but it is expected to grow most quickly in Asia, which means that is where most new demand will originate. As air travel is expected to soar over the next several decades, airlines are already looking to revitalize their fleets, and many are looking to Boeing’s 787.

With three different sized versions of the 787 and two models of the updated 777, Boeing hopes to capture most of the wide-bodied plane market. However, aviation analysts have theorized that all the problems with the new Dreamliner over the past decade caused the jet manufacturer to wait too long to begin updating the larger 777 jet, giving Airbus an opening to break into the Japanese market.

For decades, ever since Japan began rebuilding after the Second World War with help from the United States, Boeing has dominated the country’s aeronautics industry. In 1964 — the same year that Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games — the company sold its first commercial aircraft to JAL, and to do this day, the 129-seat plane remains a symbol of Japan’s postwar rebirth. In 1966, the carrier placed an order for the Boeing 747, with its distinctive hump and four big engines, which has been a symbol of jet travel for most of the past 40 years. The sale, the second placed by an airline, strengthened the relationship between the two companies.

Eventually, Japan Airlines took delivery of more than 100 747s, making Boeing’s plane, its signature plane, marked with the carrier’s red crane logo. But early in October, JAL ended its half-century relationship with Boeing, announcing it would purchase 31 A350 wide-body jets from Airbus, an $9.5-billion order that will replace the carrier’s fleet of 777s.

The deal has broader implications than a single lost order; it shows a weakness in Boeing’s marketing plan and could jeopardize the company’s relationships in Japan, where the manufacturer has invested billions of dollars to help develop its planes. “This was their market to lose, and they lost it,” Teal Group analyst Richard L. Aboulafia told the New York Times.

Even with the battery problems and other delays on the 787, “if Boeing had taken a far more aggressive tack in launching new programs like the 777X,” he added, “it probably could have kept this market,” he added.

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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