Still No Answers In 787 Battery Malfunctions

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says it is working "around the clock" to determine what caused battery failures on two Boeing 787s. NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman said it's clear there was a fire and there are indications of a short circuit problem, but the agency still doesn't know what caused a battery to catch fire. Robert Siegel talks with Wendy Kaufman.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Boeing's flagship jetliner, the 787, has been stuck on the ground lately. The FAA and safety authorities around the world grounded the fleet after battery problems. And today we have an update on the investigation of a battery fire onboard a Japan Airlines 787 this month in Boston.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman has been following this story and joins us now for an update. And, Wendy, what did the National Transportation Safety Board have to say today?

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: What they had to say, Robert, was not good news for Boeing. This plane is going to be grounded for a long time. They still don't know what happened or why it happened. I should say there have been some expectations that we were going to hear something a little bit definitive today. But mostly, what we heard was all the things the Safety Board doesn't know or understand. The one thing we did hear over and over again was the Safety Board chairwoman Deborah Hersman saying what happened in Boston just should not have happened.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: We are very concerned. We do not expect to see fire events onboard aircrafts - onboard aircraft. This is a very serious air safety concern. The FAA has taken very serious action. And we are all responding to try to address what happened, why it happened, and to make sure that the aircraft that fly are safe.

SIEGEL: So the message here is all about what we don't know. What do we know about what happened?

KAUFMAN: We do know, and we've talked a lot about the fact that the battery used on the 787 were lithium-ion batteries. And they'd never been used on a commercial jet in the way they were used on this Boeing 787. The risk of fire with these batteries was well known. And indeed, as you know, the FAA impose special conditions before the agency would approve the battery for use. The battery was tested and retest and tested some more. But in this case, there was, in the Boston case, there was a fire. There were signs of what's described as thermal runaway. It's a high-temperature, uncontrolled chemical reaction between electrolytes and electrodes within the battery. There were also short circuits within the electrical system.

Now, of course, the, you know $64,000 question is why. Was there a manufacturing defect in the battery? Was the battery contaminated in some way? Was the battery charger defective? Was the electrical system software faulty? Was there a problem with the wiring bundle? I mean, you can see there's just a lot of questions still to be answered here.

SIEGEL: But even after the flaw is discovered, aren't there supposed to be fail-safe mechanisms to cope with that and prevent things like a fire?

KAUFMAN: Yeah. Of course, there are. And the NTSB was really pretty harsh about that. She said basically, you know, you would expect that there would've been fail-safe mechanisms in place that would've prevented it from happening in the first place. But even once the event started to unfold, there should have been a mechanism to basically shut that battery down. And that didn't happen. I mean, they just - they don't know.

SIEGEL: Now you have been talking about the battery on the Japan Airlines plane in Boston. But what do we know about the battery problem on the other jet, the one that made an emergency landing in Japan?

KAUFMAN: Well, what we do know was that that battery also suffered some severe damage. We know there was smoke and fumes in the cabin and the flight deck of the - air traffic controllers reported there was smoke coming out of the front of the plane as it made its emergency landing, pretty scary stuff. So we don't know what happened there, except there was a severe battery problem there. The U.S. authorities and the Japanese authorities are working together very, very closely. And we don't know if these problems are related.

SIEGEL: So what happens next, and how long will this likely take?

KAUFMAN: The NTSB is working with NASA, with the Naval Research group. It's been studying batteries for a long time. It's working with Boeing, with the Japanese battery maker, with the French firm that supplied the electrical system. They say they've got all hands on deck. But this could take a really long time. They have to figure out what went wrong. And then Boeing has to come up with a fix, and then the FAA has to certify it, and everybody is going to be, you know, pretty much under the gun here. But it could take a long time.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Wendy.

KAUFMAN: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Wendy Kaufman in Seattle.

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