Boeing Gets a Helping Hand from Elon Musk

BoeingBoeing’s (NYSE:BA) bad news bears have been on parade for weeks. Fleets of the company’s flagship 787 Dreamliner remain grounded around the world as investigators fruitlessly examine one facet of the aircraft’s complex electrical system after another. A series of issues with lithium-ion batteries on board the plane have caused a fire and forced emergency landings, and so far no answers have emerged.

Every day the aircraft stay grounded compounds the cost of the investigation. Carriers like All Nippon Airways and United Air Lines (NYSE:UAL) have had to cancel hundreds of flights and curb expansion plans. Boeing, of course, is suffering a PR nightmare and could face production backups, be forced to redesign parts of the aircraft, and even compensate carriers for costs related to the grounding. Understandably, time is of the essence, and an international team of aviation officials are scouring electrical component manufacturers and suppliers for clues about what could have gone wrong.

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Part of the issue is that lithium-ion technology at this scale and for use in aircraft is relatively new. Experts are few and far between, and many of them were involved in designing the battery in the first place. With the limited options within aviation running out, a perhaps unlikely consultant has emerged to offer his help…

“We fly high capacity lithium ion battery packs in our rockets and spacecraft, which are subject to much higher loads than commercial aircraft and have to function all the way from sea level air pressure to vacuum. We have never had a fire in any production battery pack at either Tesla or SpaceX,” Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) and SpaceX, wrote in an email to Reuters.

“Maybe already under control, but Tesla & SpaceX are happy to help with the 787 lithium ion batteries,” he posted on Twitter on January 18. (Fun fact: In a cameo appearance in Iron Man 2, Musk tells Tony Stark that he has “an idea for an electric jet.”) Tesla used lithium ion batteries in its Roadster, as well.

It’s unclear whether Musk will be able to actually help identify the problem. Boeing will report its earnings on Wednesday morning with shares off nearly 2 percent this year to date. The company’s stock is effectively flat year over year. The company’s earnings call is likely to be packed with questions about guidance and the resolution of the investigation, but it seems unlikely that Boeing will have material updates for investors.

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