SAHELI: The not-so-dreamy Dreamliner

Like many people, I find flying fairly stressful. No matter how many plane safety statistics I read, I can’t help finding turbulence incredibly disconcerting. This is why I try to spend most flights asleep; flying is a lot better when you don’t know what’s happening! Air travel isn’t just stressful for us unfed and squished-in travelers; it’s also a profit struggle for airlines and plane manufacturers. Boeing, one of the biggest plane manufacturers, was pinning its hopes on the Dreamliner 787 – a lighter, more fuel-efficient passenger plane. Unfortunately for Boeing, the Dreamliner has faced a serious setback. In early December, one of United Airlines’ Dreamliners was diverted when an electric generator failed midflight. Then, a battery caught fire in a grounded (and empty) Dreamliner in Boston. Most scarily, an All Nippon Airways flight had to make an emergency landing shortly after takeoff in Japan when pilots smelled smoke in the cockpit. All 50 Dreamliners currently used by airlines have been grounded while investigators and Boeing try to figure out what happened.

The Dreamliner — not exactly a modest name — was billed as a highly improved passenger jet when it debuted in 2007. It has a lighter, carbon-based composite structure and, in a first for a commercial jet, it uses primarily an electricity-based system to control functions such as deicing and window-dimming (previously controlled by hydraulics-based systems). Boeing opted to use lithium ion batteries as opposed to the more traditional but heavier nickel cadmium batteries in their electrical outfitting. Fuel consumption would be reduced 20 percent relative to comparable planes. Boeing was hoping that the Dreamliner would be profitable by 2015, as more Dreamliner jets were delivered.

It was already known that the lithium ion batteries used in the Dreamliner were problematic. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tested the specific lithium ion batteries now in the Dreamliner back in 2010 and found that though very powerful, they were also the most flammable lithium ion battery option. They are already used in many small, personal appliances such as cell phones and laptops. These appliances use relatively little energy, so the risk of the battery overheating and igniting is low. Nonetheless, lithium batteries have caused problems in the past. In 2006, Sony had to recall batteries used in many laptops due to short-circuiting. Several other manufacturers have recalled batteries in laptops due to overheating concerns and resulting explosions. Lithium batteries in planes use far more power than those in laptops or phones, which means they are more at risk for overheating and deforming. There are safeguards in place on Dreamliners to prevent batteries from overheating — there are venting systems for pressure buildups, as well as a controller that will shut off the battery if temperatures increase beyond a particular threshold. The safeguards do appear to be working most of the time. All Nippon Airways has revealed that it replaced 10 Dreamliner batteries last year after they displayed abnormalities; five of these batteries held unexpectedly low charge, suggesting that the batteries will not be as long-lasting as Boeing hoped.

As of right now, American and Japanese investigators are unsure what sparked the recent battery fires. Boeing does not plan on changing the batteries used in the Dreamliner. The company argues that the recent slew of battery replacements indicates that built-in safeguards were properly activated and that maintenance, not the intrinsic nature of the battery, is at fault in the recent battery fires. It is understandable that Boeing is not motivated to change the design of their plane, as much of the benefit of the Dreamliner would be lost with a heavier, less powerful battery. Boeing made a better-than-expected fourth-quarter profit and is counting on making more Dreamliner deliveries soon. However, Dreamliners should not be flown until investigators determine not only the cause of the battery fires but also evaluate battery maintenance procedures. Flying is stressful enough — we don’t need to add explosive batteries to the mix.

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