Year after battery issue, Dreamliner still has glitches

The Boeing Co.’s plane of the future continues to be dogged by problems of in-service reliability and factory production.

A year ago today, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered U.S. 787s grounded after lithium-ion batteries overheated on two airplanes. As is usually the case, foreign regulators grounded their Dreamliners, too. All 50 of the 787s then in service sat idle for 100 days.

Boeing had to redesign the battery system before the world’s Dreamliner fleet began flying again in May.

Some seven months later, a battery cell on a plane undergoing routine maintenance in Tokyo this week started smoldering. Boeing noted that the redesigned system safely vented the fumes. But the fact remains the battery malfunctioned.

The ongoing battery issue might be the most prominent problem with Dreamliners, but it’s not the only one, or even the most disruptive, and airlines have been vocal about Boeing’s response to ongoing glitches that result in flight cancellations or delays.

In October, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney acknowledged that the plane had 97 percent dispatch reliability, which is noticeably less than the desired 99 percent.

Some of the problems are software-related and involve cautionary alerts pilots receive during operation. In November, Boeing said it was working to reduce them. But it’s a work in progress.

Earlier this month, Norwegian Air told news media that it had pressed Boeing for better support when one of its handful of Dreamliners is out of service. The carrier seemed satisfied with its conversation with Boeing about “squawks,” as they are called in the industry — non-critical problems that interfere with routine operations.

For its part, Boeing has been mostly silent on the reliability issue.

“The 787 program has matured and is reaching new levels of stability and performance regularly,” Kate Bergman, a Boeing spokeswoman, said Wednesday. “We’re pleased with the progress being made across the production program — from suppliers through Boeing.”

She declined to comment about specific issues, saying only that the company and suppliers address them as they come up.

The Dreamliner program’s heavy reliance on non-Boeing parts or assemblies from a far-flung supply chain has been an issue for years. Some workers on the 787 line in Everett say supply- chain issues have improved but aren’t completely resolved.

None of the workers was authorized to publicly comment and agreed only to speak on the condition of anonymity.

“The systems on the plane are getting better,” including those from vendors, said a Boeing worker in preflight and delivery, where planes are thoroughly checked and fixed as needed before being turned over to a customer. “But there are still growing pains with the systems on the plane talking with each other.” In other words, software.

Engineers working on the 787 line are still being asked to put in a lot of overtime to increase production and resolve problems, said Bill Dugovich, a spokesman for the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace.

Suppliers aren’t the only problem. Everett workers have long complained about problems with work coming out of the North Charleston, S.C., plant, where Boeing established a second 787 assembly line. Some Everett workers said the quality of components coming out of South Carolina improved for a time but declined again as the company pushed late last year to increase the production rate to 10 planes per month.

“We inherit their work,” said an Everett worker.

That extra work in Everett sometimes leads to additional delays, he said.

One thing seems certain: The Dreamliner isn’t going away. Airlines ordered 182 of them in 2013, and Boeing has a backlog of 916 unfilled orders, according to the company’s website.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com.

A year of 787 squawks

Jan. 7, 2013: The lithium-ion battery system on a Japan Airlines Boeing 787 catches fire while the airplane is parked in Boston.

Jan. 11, 2013: The Federal Aviation Administration says it will conduct a review of the design of 787 electrical systems.

Jan. 16, 2013: The FAA grounds all 50 in-service Boeing 787s after a second battery-related incident prompted a precautionary landing by an All Nippon Airways plane in Japan.

March 15, 2013: Boeing explains how it will redesign the lithium-ion battery system on the 787. Planes remain grounded.

April 26, 2013: The FAA lifts the grounding order for 787s. Planes need to be retrofitted with the new battery system before flight.

April 27, 2013: Boeing 787 passenger service resumes at Ethiopian Airlines.

May 14, 2013: Boeing resumes delivery of new 787s, which have the new battery system installed in the factory.

May 20, 2013: United Airlines, the only U.S. operator of 787s, resumes Dreamliner passenger flights.

June 18, 2013: At the Paris Air Show, Boeing officially launches the 787-10, the biggest of the Dreamliner family.

July 12, 2013: An Ethiopian Airlines 787 parked in London catches fire, apparently caused by an off-the-shelf emergency locator beacon. The Dreamliner’s carbon-fiber fuselage sustains significant damage.

Sept. 17, 2013: First flight of the 787-9, the mid-sized Dreamliner.

Dec. 23, 2013: After two months of repair involving a carbon-fiber-composite patch, the Ethiopian 787 that burned in London re-enters service.

Jan. 7, 2014: Norwegian Air says it has pressed Boeing to resolve technical problems more quickly. A series of glitches stranded passengers. The carrier is using the Dreamliner exclusively to expand global service.

Jan. 13, 2014: A Japan Airlines 787, on the ground in Tokyo, vents gas from a malfunctioned lithium-ion-battery cell. The fix implemented earlier in the year worked, Boeing says.

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