Jim McNerney, Boeing’s chairman, president and CEO, sent the company’s employees a letter Friday expressing confidence in the 787 and vowing to return the plane to service. “I remain tremendously proud of employees across the company for the decade of effort that has gone into designing, developing, building and delivering the most innovative commercial airplane ever imagined,” he said.
The attraction of lithium batteries is that they are significantly lighter than other types of batteries. That saves fuel, which is airlines’ leading expense. They also charge faster and contain more energy. And they can be molded to fit into odd space on airplanes, which most other batteries cannot.
The only other airliner using lithium batteries is the Airbus A380, which makes only limited use of the batteries for emergency lighting. However, Airbus is working on another airliner, the A350, expected to debut in 2014, that will make more extensive use of lithium batteries.
Boeing’s headaches with the 787’s lithium batteries are likely to cause European safety officials and other regulators around the world to take a harder look at the new Airbus plane’s batteries, safety experts said.
“I think they’re going to have a learning experience here that probably is going to result in future modifications for anybody who wants to design an aircraft and use this type of battery technology,” said Robert Fiegl, chairman of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.
The FAA, like aviation regulators in other countries, relies on the aircraft manufacturers to test their planes to make sure they are safe. FAA’s certification engineers validate that testing and ensure that the level of safety meets FAA regulations. Boeing developed the safeguards for the 787s lithium batteries, but they had to win FAA’s approval first.
The safety certification for the design, manufacturer and assembly of the 787 — a process that requires FAA approval each step of the way — was different in some respects from other aircraft because the Dreamliner employs so many cutting-edge technologies, safety experts said.