Boeing knew of 787 Dreamliner's battery woes before jet crisis

According to this NYT report, Boeing officials knew the lithium-ion batteries used on the 787 Dreamliners "had experienced multiple problems that raised questions about their reliability." Two battery failures led to the grounding of all Boeing 787 jets this month. Some of the issues could be compared to what happens if you leave your car door open overnight.


  1. I heard that after this fiasco, they’re planning on a major rebranding. In attempt to appeal to a hipper, more technically savvy audience, they’re going to rename themselves “Boeing Boeing”.

    1. When you fly Boeing Boeing, you get an awesome internet connection but the inflight meal is a banana that you can only look at.

        1. Every flight runs the risk of being cancelled midair, with the only warning being the words, “Compose yourselves” intoned over the intercom.

      1. Perhaps they should start painting the planes like bananas and just make the advertisements say, “Just look at it.”

  2. The issue they’re trying their utter damnest to distract from (and it’s working pretty well with most media outlets) is:   out-sourcing.

    yes… they never made their own batteries; but they’ve never before been so many vendors removed from their assembly floor and testing by their own engineers.   they’ve outsourced their own QA; and they will blame gremlins before they admit that.

    1. Boeing is not a battery company and does not aspire to be one; even in the old days, it’s the sort of work that Boeing would have hired a company that’s a subject matter expert to do. 

      However, in the olden days, there were far fewer outside suppliers and therefore a lot more bandwidth within the company to ride herd on suppliers. 

  3. That BB headline is pretty misleading. The quoted article talks about issues of lithium-ion batteries applications in general (there’s absolutely nothing new about this), not that Boeing knew of some specific problems with these particular batteries and decided to use them anyway, as your headline seems to suggest.

    1. Similar to what I said. It looks like they knew there were battery problems (the  monitoring systems recognized the problems; that’s how the airline knew to replace them). But it doesn’t sound like they had reason to believe their battery solution would burn, or that the failsafes would fail. The headline implies something more nefarious. Which may yet turn out to be justified — but it wasn’t as of this morning.

  4. I’m an engineer for a company that makes aviation electronics, so I’ve mostly regarded Boeing’s 787 woes with empathy (e.g. “it would suck to be on that engineering team right now” and “people don’t appreciate how these things can happen even if the program is well engineered and well run”). Hearing that they knew there was a problem diminishes my love. Though, as the article says, “…Boeing officials said the airline’s replacement of the batteries [in response to error codes, undervoltages, etc.] also suggested safeguards were activated…”. That’s a valid point. Having to replace things due to errors or failures tells you there is something wrong, but it would tend to build you confidence in your error handling and self-protection system, not diminish it, and there’s a big difference between battery ‘failure’ and battery ‘catch on fire.’ So maybe Boeing knew about ‘a problem’ but not ‘the problem’. I guess we’ll find out…

  5. IANA aerospace engineer but I take away two things from this.
    1) The state of the art of battery technology sucks. It is low tech and our civilization needs something vastly better.
    2) Is there really a place for Li-ion batteries on passenger jets, when they are so finicky? Can someone explain how much weight and money per flight would be saved over Ni-Cd batteries?

    1. IANA either, but from what I understand, Ni-Cd batteries have worse performance and problems, which is why they were replaced pretty much everywhere.

      Manufacturers spend billions of dollars every year trying to make breakthroughs in battery tech. Unfortunately, it’s a problem so hard, we don’t even really know why what we already have works like it does. At the moment, we can only poke at various materials and pray to find one with better empirical properties; whoever makes a breakthrough will reap huge mountains of cash, for sure, considering how the market for batteries keeps expanding thanks to “the internet of things”.

    2. Not all lithium batteries are created equal. Boeing is using lithium cobalt oxide, which has higher energy density but is known to be susceptible to these kinds of problems. Electric car manufacturers recognized that and are using lithium manganese oxide and other materials that don’t have this problem.

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