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Yesterday afternoon the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a press briefing to document its preliminary findings and describe its plans as it searches for a root cause of the battery fire aboard the JAL Boeing 787 in Boston and cooperate with the JASB, which leads the investigation of a battery fire that occurred on an ANA flight in Japan.

In that conference call, Debroah Hersman, Chair of the NTSB, made several telling statements:

1. The expectation is that fires should not occur on aircraft, and two have occurred within the last week.
2. The significance of these events cannot be overstated.
3. The NTSB has been working since January 7th to understand what happened in Boston
4. That the Lithium-ion battery experienced thermal runaway, a short circuit and fire
5. That a root cause for the incident has still not been found

In the briefing, several slides were shown of the battery, a CAT scan of the faulty battery, and how the NTSB used non-destructive testing to record the condition of the battery and is now taking apart the components of the battery to determine what might have gone wrong.  The bottom line – this is a work in process report indicating the severity of the issue, and that a resolution of cause is not yet at hand.

So what does this all mean, and what else do we know?

First, we know that the NTSB is working 2 shifts of 12 hours each, or 24 x 7, to try and discover why the battery failed.  This is clearly important to Boeing, the airlines, and the traveling public, and they are doing everything possible to get to the bottom of the issue, which is not easy when one has charred ruins to examine.  The NTSB has even pulled specialized military experts into the investigation who are experts in Lithium-ion batteries.  But 17 days after the Boston fire, there is still no determination of why this happened.  And until you know why, you can’t, with certainty, solve the problem.

Second, we know that both houses of Congress have chimed in, bringing an unnecessary political dimension to the issue.  The chair of the committee in charge of the NTSB is now chaired by a member from Washington State, and political grandstanding will only delay things further, and cause investigators to over-err on the side of caution.  Public statements, such as this afternoon’s briefing, will be well scripted, as “anything you say can and will be used against you” seems to be the norm in Washington DC.  Congress needs to keep quiet and let the NTSB do its job, which it does exceptionally well.

Three, with such scripting of briefings, we have to look carefully at the order of things presented.  The NTSB reported a “thermal runaway, short circuit, and fire” in that order.  Had it been “Short circuit, thermal runaway, and fire” that would indicate a potential manufacturing defect and a root cause, but that was not the case.  Thermal runaway in a Lithium-ion battery typically results in a meltdown and long lasting fire.  During the presentation, times for the Boston incident were provided, and it took about one hour and 20 minutes for firefighters to extinguish the battery that experienced thermal runaway.   These are not easy problems to diagnose, especially when evidence burns for long periods of time, and potential evidence destroyed.

Four, while everybody is working overtime, the investigation has expanded beyond the battery to the charging system and electrical system on the airplane.  Of particular interest are the controls to avoid an overcharging situation with the battery, containment of fire, as well as mechanisms that eliminate smoke from the cabin.  What goes unsaid is that special conditions approved by the FAA allow the design of the system, in the event of a battery fire, to let the fire continue to burn, on a contained basis, with smoke and fumes vented overboard.  There are no fire suppression systems for the two batteries aboard the 787.  What happens if the containment fails?  It appears, based on the photographs shown by the NTSB, that charring also occurred in the cabinet and quite close to adjacent instruments, indicating an area that may generate future regulatory attention.  Could new regulations come into place that may affect future airplanes, like A350?

Five, every day that passes without the identification of a root cause makes a “quick fix” to the airplane less likely. It is AirInsight’s expectation that there will be no quick fix to this problem that returns the 787 to the air in the near term unless a root cause is found in short order. The longer the investigation proceeds without identification of a cause, the longer the likely grounding.

Six, the comprehensive FAA investigation, which notably was not a special “certification” review but a newly named “comprehensive review” will focus on the design, manufacturing and assembly process.  We believe there will be a special focus on how Boeing outsourced aspects of design that were once kept in house.  It is one thing to outsource manufacturing, but another to outsource design.  While others may have designed subsystems, like Thales for the battery system, the buck stops at Boeing, which now seems at the mercy of its supply chain’s engineering expertise to fully understand the details of designs it integrated at the top level.

Seven, this will have a financial impact on Boeing.  Airlines will demand compensation for the grounding, and Boeing cannot deliver new airplanes coming off the line (no test flights).  While production will continue, there will be significant expense in retrofitting whatever solution finally emerges. The lack of institutional knowledge within Boeing on the design of the subsystems on the airplane will drain engineering resources from other programs as they focus resources on the investigation.  If this problem continues to drain resources, both financial and technical,  could the 787-10 and 777X programs be pushed further to the right on Boeing’s timeline?

Eight, problems with this aircraft have been magnified by the new media and internet, and may not have generated the same level of attention in the old days.  The DC-10 had 2 major accidents (Turkish Airlines in France and American in Chicago) and about 600 deaths before it was grounded, so we’ve come a long way in transparency and visibility of issues.  Nonetheless, while this is a serious issue, over the long run it is expected that the program will recover and be a financial success. But the publicity of the three and a half year delay, and now a grounding over safety issues, has clearly damaged public perception of the aircraft.

Finally, since nobody yet knows the root cause of the problem, any projections on a time line for return to flight remain speculation.  The NTSB indicated that there is a long way to go in the investigation, which doesn’t bode well for a short-term fix.

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