Thursday, February 28, 2013
WSJ: Boeing, GS Yuasa At Odds Over Proposed 787 Battery Fixes
By Andy Pasztor
Boeing Co. and the Japanese company that makes lithium-ion batteries for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner are at odds over what should be included in the final package of fixes intended to get the jets back in the air, according to government and industry officials familiar with the details.
GS Yuasa Corp. (6674) has told the Federal Aviation Administration that while it supports operational and design changes that Boeing has proposed to try to end a six-week-old grounding of the 787s, it believes the proposed package is inadequate to mitigate all potential 787 battery hazards, the officials said.
The divergent views could complicate the FAA's high-stakes deliberations over the proposed fixes and whether and when to let the 787 resume commercial flights, the officials said. Boeing on Friday officially presented the FAA and the Department of Transportation with its package of suggested fixes, which it hopes can get its planes back into the air carrying passengers in a matter of weeks.
Investigators have determined that on two 787s operated by Japanese airlines last month, short circuits inside a battery touched off uncontrollable thermal reactions among cells, producing temperatures high enough to melt the metal containers surrounding them. But it isn't clear what caused the short circuits. Top officials at the FAA and the Department of Transportation, which must sign off on any fixes, are discussing, among other issues, whether to approve the package of fixes before a root cause of the battery problems is determined.
Yuasa has cooperated with U.S. and Japanese investigators from the start, and it continues to work closely with Boeing to devise battery fixes. But last week in Washington, the day before Boeing's meeting with federal regulators, a high-level Yuasa delegation briefed senior FAA officials about the battery maker's concerns, according to officials familiar with the details.
Yuasa's primary argument, according to the officials, was that its own laboratory tests strongly suggest that an external power surge--or another problem originating outside the battery--kicked off the sequence of events on the 787s that experienced burning batteries. Yuasa told the FAA that temperatures and current fluctuations recorded on those planes weren't consistent with short circuits originating inside its batteries.
As a result, Yuasa is urging the FAA to require installation of a sophisticated voltage regulator intended to prevent current from flowing into 787 batteries at the first sign of a problem. Boeing's package of proposed battery enhancements doesn't add such a feature to existing safeguards, people familiar with it say. Boeing is arguing that its overall package--which includes sturdier and better separated cells and a new fireproof container around the batteries--is adequate to prevent any internal or external malfunctions from causing fire or smoke.
Investigators have determined that neither battery on the two Japanese planes was overcharged, but they have also said that they continue to probe potential causes that are both internal and external to the batteries.
Yuasa officials in Japan couldn't be reached for comment. Kenneth Quinn, a partner with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP in Washington who is U.S. counsel for Yuasa, said the company is "very pleased" with the progress on proposed fixes.
A Boeing spokesman said "our proposal includes multiple layers of protection covering the known potential probable causes of the events" that led to the grounding. Boeing also reiterated that the 787's original battery system includes "quadruple-redundant protections against overcharging" intended to "disconnect the battery before overcharge occurs regardless of the source of the charge."
Some FAA officials view Yuasa's argument as largely a face-saving maneuver intended to deflect criticism of the design and manufacture of its batteries. FAA officials have told Boeing and Yuasa to work out the issue among themselves, according to two people familiar with the latest developments.
Still, industry officials said FAA experts are also assessing Yuasa's data and discussing the issue with Boeing officials. They said it's too early to tell whether last week's Yuasa briefing will significantly affect the agency's ultimate decision on potential fixes or the timing of test flights.
--Jon Ostrower and Yoshio Takahashi contributed to this article.