NTSB Raises New Concerns About Dreamliner's Lithium Ion Battery

May 23, 2014
Originally published on May 23, 2014 5:04 pm

The National Transportation Safety Board is calling on the FAA to take another look at the safety of the battery used in its Dreamliners. The recommendations issued by the NTSB on Thursday call on the FAA to evaluate whether additional requirements and independent testing outside the aviation industry are needed on the lithium ion batteries used in the Boeing 787s. Incidents involving the batteries' failure caused the fleet to be grounded last year. The FAA released its own internal study earlier this year concluding that it had an effective process in place to identify and correct problems that emerged before and after certification.

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The National Transportation Safety Board is raising new concerns about the lithium ion batteries used on Boeing's 787 Dreamliner jets. Two of those batteries caught fire last year, leading regulators to ground Dreamliners for several months. Now, the NTSB says the federal aviation administration failed to properly test the batteries, relying too heavily on Boeing for expertise. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The 787 Dreamliner is Boeing's long-range jet of the future. Made with lighter weight composite materials, it's 20 percent more fuel efficient than similar planes. One of the ways it achieves greater fuel efficiency is by relying on large lithium ion batteries to power many of its systems. These are the same kinds of batteries used in cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices, but some lithium ion batteries can overheat and catch fire, according to acting NTSB chairman Christopher Hart.

CHAIRMAN CHRISTOPHER HART: The issue that we were primarily addressing was an internal short circuit in the battery. And an internal short circuit in the battery can lead to what's known as a thermal runaway, which we would know as an explosion or a fire.

SCHAPER: And that's exactly what happened on two separate 787 Dreamliners in January of 2013. One battery caught fire on a parked Japan Airlines 787 at Boston's Logan Airport. Nine days later, there was a similar incident on board an ANA 787 while flying over Japan. No one was hurt but regulators grounded all Boeing Dreamliners worldwide for nearly four months until the company added fire protection elements.

Now, a new 12-page NTSB report finds that the initial testing done by Boeing and the FAA to certify these batteries was insufficient. Again, acting NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart.

HART: We found that the testing process, as it was, was good but it didn't go far enough.

SCHAPER: Hart acknowledges that not a lot was known about how these lithium ion batteries would perform in an airplane, so to some degree, the FAA and Boeing just didn't know what it didn't know. But Hart says the FAA should've known enough to not rely only on the scientific expertise of Boeing, which it regulates.

HART: We're asking the FAA to look at whether there is a need to establish an independent panel of experts who are not necessarily associated with that manufacturer to look more extensively at the new technologies.

SCHAPER: The NTSB recommendations are not entirely a rebuke of the FAA's own internal report of the battery fires released in March. It found deficiencies in the process of certifying new aircraft and technology, but claims those problems are being addressed or have been addressed. The NTSB is recommending additional steps, though, to insure that new technologies are more thoroughly and rigorously tested before being used in airplanes.

And many who follow the aviation industry closely agree, this is a positive step to insure better safety in flight. Hans Weber is a consultant who specializes in the safety of aviation technology.

HANS WEBER: Absent having a clear understanding of what the root cause or causes were, the NTSB is making some very commonsense recommendations.


The FAA has 90 days to respond to those recommendations while investigations into the cause of the battery fires continue. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.