Will 787 Battery Meltdowns Be a Problem for Boeing in 2014?

Boeing 787 Jet on Fire

This time last year, Boeing (NYSE:BA) and its 787 Dreamliner were facing the beginning a four-month, worldwide grounding of the aircraft, the first such global grounding in 30 years. On January 16, 2013, following two lithium-ion battery meltdowns on planes operated by Japan Airlines (JALFQ.PK) and ANA Holdings (ALNPY.PK), the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency airworthiness directive that kept all 787s on the ground in the United States.

Then, Japan’s Transport Ministry, India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation, and the Dirección General de Aeronautica Civil of Chile followed suit. In total, all 50 Dreamliners owned by eight airlines remained out of service for the next couple of months while Boeing engineers searched for a means to prevent the batteries from overheating.

What followed next was a series of well-publicized 787 Dreamliner malfunctions. In November, Japan Airlines, known as JAL, reported that a cockpit indicator showed a problem with one craft’s battery. Most recently, a JAL 787 aircraft remained grounded at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. Regulators were called in to check the plane after maintenance engineers detected white smoke venting from the plane on Tuesday. When the battery — which is encased in a steel containment box — was inspected, the engineers found that one of the eight battery cells had leaked.

Boeing told Reuters it was “aware of the 787 issue that occurred Tuesday afternoon at Narita, which appears to have involved the venting of a single battery cell.” Venting is the process by which fumes and heat are channeled away from the battery casing and the aircraft in the event the battery overheats. The jet manufacturer also noted that the recent malfunction occurred during scheduled maintenance, with no passengers on board.

The question of who — Boeing or the airline — will shoulder the costs incurred by keeping the jet from flying will be determined after the plane returns to its regular schedule, a spokesman for JAL told Reuters.

In a letter dated June 1, President Yoshiharu Ueki apologized for the inconvenience the flight suspensions caused travelers, noting that JAL “fully” cooperated with United States and Japanese government investigative agencies and worked with Boeing and aviation authorities to “preclude a similar occurrence in the future and provide customers with the highest aviation safety standards.”

Since the craft’s return to the sky after its grounding, the number of 787 Dreamliners in operation have more than doubled to 115 planes operated by 16 carriers. But more technical issues followed.

A jet operated by United Continental (NYSE:UAL), the only U.S. carrier to fly the 787, was forced to make an emergency landing in Houston; an Ethiopian Airlines 787 caught fire at Heathrow Airport because of a faulty emergency beacon; a faulty fuel pump indicator and an oil level indicator caused United flights to be diverted last summer; and Norwegian Air Shuttle, the third-largest budget airline in Europe, was forced to rely on Boeing rival Airbus (EADSY.PK) when problems with an electrical system, a hydraulic pump, and a brake indicator kept its fleet of 787s grounded in the fall.

Regulators have yet to uncover why those battery meltdowns took place. The Japan Transport Safety Board is still gathering information, and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the battery fire that took place on a JAL-operated 787 in Boston a year ago is also ongoing. The Federal Aviation Administration, which certified Boeing’s redesigned power pack, has yet to release the findings of its review of the battery malfunction that was due last summer.

Experts interviewed by Reuters called Tuesday’s incident troubling, but they hesitated in drawing broader conclusions. Teal Group aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia told the news service that the evidence of another batter problem raised two questions: whether the containment system developed by Boeing engineers is effective and whether the actual cause of the battery problems will be discovered.

“The real issue with containing the problem, rather than getting to the root cause of the problem, concerns economics,” he said to Reuters. “Incidents can be successfully contained, but if you continue to see incidents like these, you’ve got a mounting bill from taking jets offline, and repairing their battery systems. You’ve got an image problem, too.”

Investors, who bid shares of Boeing up 82.74 percent in 2013, have by and large remained unfazed by the numerous technical problems with the 787 Dreamliner. Shares did close down 0.5 percent at $140.01 on Tuesday, a few dollars shy of the stock’s 52-week high, but were trading up half a percent on Wednesday morning.

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