Boeing chaired the committee that developed the standards for using lithium ion batteries on the 787 Dreamliner, according to a presentation made to the National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday. Boeing also provided the Federal Aviation Administration with the impetus to issue a special condition granting first-time use of this type of battery on a commercial airliner.
Considering how intimately Boeing was involved in developing the battery’s safety standards and how design shortcomings led to the grounding of the airplane, one might expect disappointed airline customers to be going after Boeing in court. Initially, that appeared inevitable as airlines dealt with the shock of having to cancel flights and rearrange schedules. Poland’s Lot told Associated Press that the grounding cost $50,000 a day. Qatar boss Akbar al Baker issued an ominous threat that Boeing would have “to get their check book out.”
So far, however, no Boeing 787 operator has reported filing a lawsuit. The largest operators Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, with fifty 787s between them and United, Air India, Ethiopian, LAN, Qatar and Lot had already put their Dreamliners into service when the planes were grounded on 16 January. Norwegian was planning to begin long-haul, low-cost service to New York and Bangkok next month. Now, its Dreamliner is stuck at the Boeing factory and it will wet-lease an Airbus to operate the new routes.
In an email, Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said, “We have been in close communication with our customers since this issue arose. As always, the details of those conversations with our customers are confidential.”
“There are substantial business interruption claims,” said Andrew Maloney, an aviation lawyer in New York, whose firm, Kreindler & Kreindler takes cases on behalf of airline passengers. “They need to do something to satisfy their large customers’ substantial gripes and lost revenue,” he said.
Even though Maloney said the law is on the side of the airlines, another lawyer who represents airlines but who did not want to be identified suggested airlines are unlikely to sue. “I don’t see litigation happening, certainly in this time frame and maybe never,” the lawyer said. “It’s self defeating to go after Boeing if it is going to be an airplane you’re continuing to operate.”
The lawyer said the airlines affected would be well advised to present a claim to Boeing detailing all the ways the 787 battery problem has affected business and how they wish to be compensated. The airlines should also get assurances that when the airplane flies again it will be without new operational restrictions.
It’s understood that Boeing has already solicited some of this information from its customers, a statement Birtel would not confirm. While engineers continue to work to win FAA certification for the modified Dreamliner battery, company executives are also monitoring the NTSB’s two-day forum on the use of low weight/high power lithium ion batteries in transportation that began on Thursday.
The company would not have been cheered by two videos of battery fires, like those sent as cargo, conducted by the FAA’s technical center in Atlantic City and presented by the FAA’s Janet McLaughlin. For the first 10 minutes the flames look similar but at 30 minutes, the fire on the lithium ion batteries begins erupting in flaming particles that spew in all directions. McLaughlin reassured the audience that the lithium ion batteries set ablaze were not the same as the one used on the Dreamliner. The 787 battery “doesn’t rocket like that”, she said.
After the hearing was over, Hersman met with reporters and, after taking note of all the battery powered devices being used to record her words told us, lithium ion “is a technology that’s out there. The genie is out of the bottle and we’ve got to figure out how to mitigate the risks,” both those associated with the transportation of the batteries as cargo and the use of the batteries in the design of the airplane.
In seeking certification for its latest battery system, Boeing claims that this is exactly what it is doing and for customers of the Dreamliner, mitigating the risks can’t come soon enough.