Airbus reportedly dropping lithium-ion batteries

TOULOUSE, France — Airbus is developing plans to use standard batteries in its new A350 model and jettison the lithium-ion power source that grounded Boeing’s rival 787 Dreamliner, two people familiar with the plans said.

The step is being considered to avoid any similar problems or certification issues with the A350, said the people, who declined to be identified because the discussions are private. No final decision on the matter has been reached, they added.

The global 787 fleet was grounded on Jan. 16 following a fire on a Japan Airlines Co. plane that U.S. safety experts determined had originated in a lithium-ion battery. Airbus has said that the electrical design of the A350 and its lithium batteries would be more conservative than in the Dreamliner.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said Thursday that assumptions in certifying the 787’s batteries should be reconsidered after investigators found that a short-circuit in one cell had set off a chain reaction, destroying the unit. The Federal Aviation Administration says Boeing can conduct test flights to speed efforts toward a fix.

Should Airbus opt to switch to a traditional battery now, the change could be accomplished with a few months’ delay, one of the people said, while waiting until Boeing resolves the 787 issue could put back the A350 significantly.

What’s more, if U.S. investigators and Chicago-based Boeing ultimately fail to pinpoint the root cause of the battery fires, regulators may even decide that the technology isn’t sufficiently mature to be used by any company.

Airbus is currently aiming for test flights with the A350 mid-year, followed by entry into service by the end of 2014.

“We’ll carefully study recommendations that come out of the 787 investigation and evaluate whether they apply to the A350,” Airbus spokeswoman Marcella Muratore said when contacted by Bloomberg today. Stefan Schaffrath, also an Airbus spokesman, underlined that the NTSB hasn’t yet drawn any conclusions.

Airbus Chief Executive Fabrice Bregier said last week that while the A350 has a “robust design,” there’s nothing to stop the company returning to a “classical plan” if need be.

A decision to modify electrical designs to incorporate traditional nickel-cadmium batteries wouldn’t need to affect test flights, many of which are aimed at evaluating the plane’s structure and flying characteristics.

Airbus, which gets its lithium batteries from Saft Groupe, based in Bagnolet, France, plans to use four devices versus Boeing’s two, reducing the demands on each, Tom Williams, its executive vice president for programs, said last month.

Still, nickel-cadmium power sources are larger and heavier — weighing roughly twice as much as lithium-ion and adding about 200 pounds to the plane — so a change is not trivial and a redesign could take months, he said.

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